As districts scramble to implement online learning platforms before school returns next month, virtual programs are seeing a huge increase in applications that some experts believe may shift the future of education.

Livingston Parish is one of the districts to announce plans to open a virtual academy. Though it was not prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, the proximity of its launch to the forced online learning environment of the 2020-21 year has led to a strong start. Since opening the phone lines and website applications in early July, the school has received more than 800 inquiries.

In Ascension Parish, the Apple Digital Academy, a virtual school that’s been in operation since 2013, will usually average about 200 students enrolled from K-12. But applications for the 2020-21 school year has jumped tenfold.

“In the past it was typically used as an alternative program in addition to their regular program. … It wasn’t a true open enrollment where anybody could enroll, it was a recommendation by a principal or counselor,” Ascension Parish Director of Secondary Schools Mia Edwards said. “I do foresee this (pandemic) opening the door to us being more open and flexible with admissions.”

As school leaders have spent the last several months crafting plans in an ever-changing public health environment, offering virtual classrooms was often a reluctant option.

In Livingston Parish, for example, officials told families in mid-July that K-5 students would return in person and the older grades would do a hybrid of face-to-face learning and online instruction, a plan they quickly expanded to allow for an online-only option for those fearing returning to school in-person.

These temporary online learning options as a result of a statewide crisis are a far cry from the environment of an established, full-time virtual school, experts say. Still, the taste test of the more flexible virtual learning model may be enough to sway some families long term.

“We’ve seen an uptick in applications; it especially started when we went back into reopening from Phase 1 to Phase 2,” University View Academy communications director Michael Marsh said. “Schools were closed, a lot of people were looking for options and since then we’ve seen a large increase. It’s substantial.”

University View services the entire state in K-12 virtual education, but it's capped by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to 3,480 students.

With the increased interest during the coronavirus pandemic, the school now has a waiting list exceeding 300 students.

“We’ve been at it a lot longer and this is right up our alley. People are stuck at home and schools aren’t open, so we expected an uptick and we got it,” Marsh said. “Schools are finding it’s not as easy as setting up a Zoom call and doing classes.”

Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy, a similar statewide K-12 virtual model school, was expecting an influx but the 7,500 more inquiries and 1,900 more applicants than the previous year was still a surprise.

“Our model does lend itself to flexibility, so I feel like a lot of parents are looking toward that type of education,” LVCA Head of School Danielle Scott said. “I do think once some families realize this is a real, valid option they’ll take advantage of it.”

Scott said the school historically has been populated with kids who may have medical conditions that require frequent appointments during the traditional school day, those for whom public schools aren’t to their liking or values, and those who are on a focused, self-motivated track.

Livingston Parish Assistant Superintendent Jody Purvis said the district has spent a lot of time in recent weeks explaining the distinction between the new online school, Livingston Virtual, and the temporary online learning option as a result of the pandemic.

“Livingston Virtual students are there to work towards graduation, they’re not working to where the pandemic is over and they’re going back to school,” Purvis said. The district’s online school has been in the pipeline since 2018, when educators found a significant number of alternative learning students were leaving the district for charter or private virtual schools such as University View or LVCA down the road in Baton Rouge.

Livingston Virtual is not its own school but rather considered a program extension of the student’s brick-and-mortar school. Apple Digital Academy in Ascension Parish works the same way.

Students have a mix of traditional schooling and strictly virtual charter academies by studying academics at home, taking tests at the school buildings, and having the opportunity to graduate with a cohort, go to prom or try out for the football team.

Though it’s been around since 2013, Edwards said, Ascension’s Apple Digital Academy and the new coronavirus-related online learning option will take some getting used to for new families. It takes an investment from parents to keep their children — especially the K-5 age range — motivated to self pace and stay on track. For teachers, it can be just as big of a transition.

“Having a camera in your classroom is different. We’ve not experienced this before so even aspects like where to position the camera to see the smartboard and the teacher moving around but not seeing all the physical students is new,” Edwards said.

“When I first started teaching it was the chalkboard, then the dry erase, then the overhead, then we did everything on a computer," Edwards said. "It’s a changing time and we adapt, and we always adapt well but our regular classroom teachers will have some growing pains.”

For instance, behavioral management of a class that’s either split between in-person and virtual or fully virtual can be difficult for educators who aren’t experienced in that style of teaching.

Online classes may be the only game in town for now, but what happens after the pandemic, said Marsh, with the online University View Academy.

“How many of these kids are we going to retain once there’s a COVID vaccine available and things go back to the way they were in 2019," Marsh noted. "We pride ourselves in flexibility and the classes we offer, but some may want to do the socialization or go back to playing sports we don’t offer. … We just don’t know what’s going to happen.”


Email Emma Kennedy at ekennedy@theadvocate.com.