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Suzanne Munson column: Expanding education choices in Virginia

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Virtual Learning

In November 2020, then-10-year-old Kylie Butler did some virtual schoolwork at her family’s home in Mechanicsville.

During COVID-19 school closures, some Virginia parents became creative with their children’s educations.

Rather than struggling individually with online instruction, they formed mini-classrooms with friends and neighbors in convenient spaces. These parents signed up for quality online courses through the Virginia Department of Education, liked the experience and plan to continue with this alternative. They believe their children can learn in a safer, smaller and healthier environment — away from the teacher shortages and behavioral distractions that often exist in congested public-school environments.

High-quality online courses also can benefit public schools in underserved rural and urban areas. The COVID shutdown has left many of our schools in a grave, long-term crisis.

Qualified teachers are leaving their high-stress, underpaid profession in droves. Recruitment of new teachers is seriously lagging, especially in critical subjects such as math and science.

Some classrooms will open this fall with only an undertrained substitute teacher in charge. When a substitute teacher is not available, students will be reassigned to already harried full-time teachers in crowded classrooms. And there always is the unpleasant possibility of future virus-related school shutdowns, as mutations multiply.

COVID-era images of remote learning in public schools were that of thousands of frustrated teachers across the state, hunched over computers, hurriedly creating lesson plans of uneven quality that duplicated each other’s efforts; and thousands more students, hunched over devices at home, trying to succeed amid the chaos.

Despite the best efforts of many people, education suffered. Test scores plummeted. Students dropped out. There was no strong statewide program to support the system.

The VDOE has made a commendable start with online learning through its Virtual Virginia classes. But these are available in only a handful of school districts, serving less than 2% of the commonwealth’s students. This system could become a major player, with serious funding from the General Assembly.

A free, accredited online curriculum, featuring the finest instructors in every subject, would level the playing field for students from diverse backgrounds. Rich and poor students alike across the commonwealth could receive the same good instruction, addressing uneven education in affluent, low-income and rural areas. Students confined at home due to illnesses or physical disabilities would be able to keep up with their studies and not fall behind.

Additionally, for those choosing remote learning individually or in small-group settings, this need not be an isolated experience. There could be opportunities for discussion, exercise, social interaction and creative expression, with adult supervision.

Participation in public-school athletics and other activities should be allowed, as home-school parents also pay taxes to support public schools. This is the norm in certain other states.

It also should be possible for remote schoolers to become football stars or lead actresses in theater productions at their local high schools. Participation in these activities would provide important opportunities to get to know students from diverse social and economic backgrounds.

Localities like the city of Richmond also could benefit, as tax dollars are lost when young families move from cities to suburbs for different schools. Mini-schools organized by parents, using online assets, could be an alternative to relocating — thus strengthening the urban tax base.

An argument against the online learning alternative is that it might threaten the public school system. In reality, the majority of Virginia students always will be enrolled in public schools.

Remote learning is not the choice for everyone. It involves much effort and planning, and some resources on the part of parents.

Online classes are more appropriate for older students rather than for the very young. But an accredited online education should be an option for those who want to choose it.

Public education in the classroom actually could be strengthened in many ways with access to excellent online courses. When a qualified teacher can’t be hired, when a substitute teacher is called in or when a teacher is weak in certain subject areas — physics or calculus, for example — an accredited online learning curriculum could be a huge asset.

If online learning is viewed as an alternative rather than as a threat to public schools, Democratic as well as Republican support could be given to funding proposals. Funding should be in addition to, not competing with, allocations for general public education.

If Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration believes in expanding educational choices for Virginians, this is an alternative worth supporting.

Suzanne Munson has been an instructor at both high school and college levels. She holds a master’s degree in education from Virginia Commonwealth University. Contact her at:


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