Expanded Virtual Learning Has Always Been Needed In Mississippi
With the closure of Mississippi public schools through April 17 and private schools following suit, most if not all students in the state are experiencing schooling at home, perhaps for the first time, and many schools suddenly find themselves facing the unknown – a month or more of attempting to provide a full-time distance education.
An educational shift like this one should make us consider the expanding role of virtual schooling, not only as a supplement or emergency measure, but as a school choice for different kinds of learners, students who are homebound for medical reasons, students who move or travel often, students assigned to failing schools, victims of bullying, or those in areas with fewer educational options.
Across the nation, millions of students now participate in online and blended learning, and enrollment in virtual public, charter, and private schools is rising. States like Alabama have passed legislation requiring districts to provide a virtual pathway to a diploma. More than 11,000 K-12 students in Florida attend virtual public and charter schools full-time.
But Mississippi has been slow to offer this option to students who might benefit from it.
Public schools may offer online courses to students in grades 6-12 through the Mississippi Virtual Public School, providing flexibility for areas where there are no teacher candidates with subject matter expertise. But no student may attend full-time and availability is subject to legislative funding levels. Students fill slots on a first come, first served basis, and schools must choose from a list of courses approved by the state department of education.
The state’s 2013 charter school law does not allow virtual charter schools to operate either, though schools may offer classes online with the authorizer board’s permission.
In fact, the only public dollars being spent on full-time virtual learning could be taken away in legislation moving forward this session. Senate Bill 2594, passed by the Senate and under consideration by the House, would renew the state’s Education Scholarship Account program for students with special needs. The bill would also newly prohibit participants from attending school online. Thus far, students in rural areas and those with life-threatening physical disabilities or in need of self-paced learning have used this flexibility at eight virtual private schools.
A therapist serving some of these students says, “The availability of online schooling in a more appropriate, flexible environment is the only way these students have been able to be successful.” Yet, they will be forced to find brick-and-mortar alternatives if the bill passes without further changes.
Virtual learning options were already increasing rapidly before Coronavirus came on the scene, but the transformation of schooling it’s effected should make Mississippi consider the importance of freeing up students to attend school fully online when circumstances recommend – or even demand – it.