Understanding Virtual School

Updated: Aug 13, 2021

An Experienced Parent's Perspective


Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Stride K12 in any way nor am I being compensated for my post. These are my opinions on virtual school and I am sharing them in hopes of helping other parents make an informed decision. I originally published this post in July 2020, but I updated it for this school year.


 

Virtual school is the best thing that has ever happened for our children’s education. Yet there are so many misconceptions about what it really is. Virtual school is legitimate; it is real school. But people look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them we do virtual school. The conversation then goes, “oh, so you homeschool?” To which I reply, “no, they attend a virtual public school. They have teachers and live classes. We just do it from home.” It’s usually at that point that they stop asking questions, and the look on their face tells me they think it’s a joke.


Rarely do people express true interest and want to learn more. This is our seventh school year as a virtual family, so we have been doing it since before COVID made it cool. But now that there are so many parents that are nervous about sending their kids to school between vaccines, mask mandates, and the Delta variant, there has been much more interest in how it all works.


With schools being shut down in our area again and likely more to come, many parents might be considering virtual school but have only heard the horror stories. Our school was built as a virtual academy from day one. It isn't some afterthought thrown together by a brick and mortar school out of necessity.


When we started in 2016 the then-tiny program had an enrollment of less than one hundred children and offered kindergarten through second grade. Now, just five years later, enrollment is nearing the 1,500 student maximum and goes all the way through twelfth grade.


Our son that started in kindergarten back in 2016 is now in his sixth grade year, and our other three attend the same school. It's the best decision we ever made for them academically and that is reflected in their grades and their positive attitudes toward learning.

A girl doing school at home.

What is virtual school, and is it legit?


Virtual school is schooling that is done online through an accredited public (or sometimes private) school. Some county/city school boards offer it specifically to students in their districts, or you can go through a company like Stride K12 like we do. It is a legitimate way to educate your children. Our kids have live classes with trained teachers. They attend in-person mandated state testing. They get report cards, have required attendance, and have quarterly tests to gauge their progress.


They do beginning of the year testing online that is not graded. It simply gauges where they stand and this helps their teachers determine the plan that is right for them. It also determines how many live class sessions they will need to attend each week. Even if they "test out" of most live class sessions, those classes are always open and encouraged for optional attendance and to interact with other students.


They take these online tests each quarter to ensure they are progressing and at that point the teachers reevaluate and adjust their plans as needed to keep your children on target. They get individualized attention like they would in a classroom, if not even more so. At the end of the year they will take the test one last time so their yearly growth can be accurately gauged.


All their materials are shipped to our door, free of charge. We ship some things back at the end of the year. Depending on the school, they’ll even supply the computer (one laptop per student) and printer (one per family). We have an advisor that helps coordinate things as needed, and our children have specific teachers. We have monthly calls with our teachers and they offer one-on-one sessions with any student needing extra help.


While you will have plenty of support, you will be the child’s Learning Coach (LC). This means you will help the child through all aspects of school each day and grade much of his or her work. With younger children, you will explain their assignments to them and help them through the work. You will read their literature stories to them, then ask them comprehension questions. These questions will come from your Learning Coach guides, which are textbooks that guide you as the LC. You can think of them as your lesson plan. You will also administer their tests. With older children, you become more of a mentor, stepping in only when they need help, as older students are expected to be more self-sufficient and will have more live class sessions with their teachers.


As an LC you will also ensure attendance is entered as required. In our school six hours of attendance are required each day. This does not mean your child has to sit for six hours at the computer! Anything educational counts toward attendance. For younger children this means coloring, building with Legos or blocks, or being read to. For older children it could be reading, crafts that require math, cooking, or writing. Any physical activity your child engages in counts towards their physical education attendance. It isn’t difficult to reach the six hours. Our state does have truancy laws and they do apply to virtual school so attendance is not to be taken lightly.


What is a typical day like?


Our typical days are relaxed. We do not rush out of bed to scarf down breakfast and get started. We are morning people anyway, but we still don’t start school till close to 8:30. We do lessons till lunch around 11:00, and we have a nice lunch that is not rushed. The kids are able to eat on their schedule when they are hungry and in between their classes. I give them plenty of time to laugh and talk before they need to jump back into their lessons.


After lunch, we resume our lessons, and we’re usually wrapped up for the day by 2:00. On days the kids have live classes, we do our other lessons around those. These classes are usually 30 to 45 minutes long. The picture below shows the schedule for the day. This was today's schedule for our first grader. On the left hand side are all her classes and the lessons due today in each one. Note that we did not complete the top lesson. No biggie. With schooling like this we can complete that on Monday. She had testing today and was fidgety. I knew she would be better off being done for the day.


On the right hand side of the screen is the live class schedule. She only had the one today for her beginning of the year testing. When the time comes to log in to the session, we simply click that session name and are taken into the virtual classroom. We are using a platform called NewRow for classes this year. I have heard that some have used Zoom and there are various other platforms as well.

A daily schedule for virtual school.
Our daily schedule.

During the school day, the kids can get up and go to the restroom any time they need to. They keep their water bottles at their desks with them and they have snacks when they get hungry. When I can tell they’re getting off track or losing focus, I suggest a 10-minute break. We tailor every day to our family’s needs on that day. In this way, they don’t get so frustrated with school.


Because we do all our work from home, they don’t have the typical homework that other students might have. If they are struggling with something, I will create worksheets for them to get in some extra practice. Usually, however, once their school day ends they don’t have to think about schoolwork again until the next morning. This gives them time to get outside and run around and just be kids.


What is the curriculum like?


The curriculum is state-approved and as rigorous, or more so, than any other public school. In the early grades (kindergarten and first) students learn the building blocks of reading and math. There are separate lessons for handwriting, literature and comprehension, phonics, and vocabulary. They also learn history, science, and social studies. Art and music are offered as well.


As you can see below the curriculum is well-rounded. Supplemental activities is listed simply for attendance and includes things such as coloring or "extras." PE at this age is any physical activity. The math appendix course only contains about a dozen lessons that we do throughout the entire year. It is a supplement to the standard curriculum until our state repeals Common Core.


All the classes that say Stride are not required but are for extra practice. Stride Academy is a site that allows kids to earn coins for answering questions correctly. They can "spend" their coins to play games as a reward. It is encouraged but not required and they usually recommend about twenty minutes a day. Our kids love it so getting them to get in that time is no problem.

A list of virtual school courses.
Our first-grader's courses.

In the later elementary years classes such as literature, phonics, and spelling become one course called English Language Arts or ELA. Students are encouraged to work independently as much as possible, especially with reading assigned stories. They will incorporate all their English skills into their lessons including reading comprehension, writing skills, grammar, and spelling. They will still take math, history, and science. Art and music are still offered at this age as well.


The photos below show an example of some of the materials our first-grader is using this year. The image at the far left is a picture of a page from my Learning Coach guide that helps guide me through the lesson. The center image shows some of the great stories she will read in literature. The image at right shows a worksheet from her math book. The materials are of the best quality and are very informative and engaging.



By middle school, children have a different teacher for each course, and they may attend more live classes than younger students. Their assignments are submitted to teachers for grading instead of being assessed by you, the Learning Coach. They are expected to be more independent, and their assignments will be more in-depth and have due dates. They take core classes such as ELA, math, history, and science. The schools are adding more and more electives at the middle school level and this year our son is taking computer coding and art.


High school is much like middle school in structure and students will of course still take all their core classes. They will also take a foreign language and can start choosing more electives. They still have different teachers for each subject and attend live classes more often than younger students. They have the same diploma options as any other high-schooler and can choose to take honors, advanced, or college prep courses. They will receive the same opportunities for college counseling and ACT/SAT testing as any other student.

A screenshot of a virtual high school schedule.
A typical high school schedule.

What has our experience been like?


I would not change how our family does school for the world. It has been beneficial to our kids in so many ways. We were unhappy with the schools here and our family was staying sick. We have four schools in our city and we had kids in three of them. We were able to see that as the children got older the quality of the schools seemed worse. We knew we needed to make a change.


As I said before, we started K12 in 2016 with our youngest son who was in kindergarten at the time. He took to it immediately and said he loved doing school at home. We switched him after the Christmas holidays but decided to let our older two finish their year. The next school year we started K12 with them, too. They were going into fifth and ninth grades at the time.


Our daughter who was going into fifth grade had been struggling in school. We knew she was having a hard time but we were told “everything is fine” when we questioned anything. It turned out things were not fine and we played catch-up for a long time. We felt like she was having a hard time in math and she was not a good speller. As soon as we started the school year at home I realized she had no idea how to multiply, despite her report card grades reflecting that she did and her teacher telling us, as usual, all was “fine.” We spent hours of one-on-one time together each day working on things she should have already known and building her courage. It worked and she now makes straight As with almost no help from me.


We now have one in tenth grade, one in sixth grade, one in fourth grade, and one in first grade. It can get busy running between them to make sure they don't need help, but for the most part we are like a well-oiled machine.


One of the best things, in our opinion, is the ability to work through things as quickly or as slowly as they need. If they don’t understand something, we can spend as many days as we need to on it. They don’t get swept along to the next skill before they’re ready like they may in a classroom setting. On the other hand, if they are really breezing through something, we can knock out a couple of extra lessons that day to get ahead.


Another great thing is the flexibility. When we need to take a day off for a planned event, we simply work to get ahead so that day off doesn’t affect us. If it’s unplanned, such as with a sickness, it’s easy to catch up when the child feels better. Even if you miss a live class there are recordings to go back and watch. As long as the student does the work required and sends it to the teacher, he or she will get full credit for being at the class.


How do you get started?


Our family uses Stride K12. I’m sure there are other options out there, but these are the steps for enrolling with Stride:


First, visit their website at www.k12.com. Below is the screen that comes up. You will click on the "enroll now" yellow button in the top right corner. Simply follow the steps as it prompts you to find open schools in your area and get your child/children started.



Stride K12 home page.
The Stride K12 home page.

No matter which school you choose you will likely need to provide much of the same information as you would for any other school. This includes proof of residency (a utility bill, lease, etc.), proof of age (birth certificate), immunization records, and whatever forms the school requires such as housing information for grants, etc. Most of these are signed online and the others are uploaded directly to K12 or the school.


Once you’ve filled out the application, someone will call you for an admissions call. During this call they will tell you how the program works, including information specific to the school you chose. They verify that all the information they have on file is correct and will answer any questions you have.


Once your application is approved and your child is officially enrolled you will receive an email to create a Learning Coach account and a student account. You will be prompted on how to set these up and the student account is where your child will log in each day to work. You will receive your student’s supplies via UPS in several weeks. You can begin lessons without having received your supplies. Many supplies are available as a digital download and teachers are very understanding if you're still waiting on materials.


 

Common questions I’ve gotten:


Do your kids learn as much as they would in a classroom?

Yes, I believe our kids are doing better and learning more than they would in a regular classroom.


What about socialization?

Kids can still stay involved in extra-curricular activities. Our school also offers local monthly outings throughout the state where you can take the kids to meet their classmates. Right now those have been suspended because of COVID but the school has built in time each week fort students to meet with their classmates in a virtual setting to just hang out and talk.


Is it stressful?

You can expect the first couple of weeks to be tough, especially with multiple students. Don’t give up! It DOES get easier and it is so worth it!


Do they really send you all of their supplies?

You get almost every single thing your child will need. They will send textbooks, literary texts, math aids like base ten blocks, workbooks, and more. Your student will write in the workbooks but the textbooks and other things will be sent back (via prepaid labels) at the end of the year. You will need to provide things such as paper, pencils, basic art supplies, printer paper and ink, and a few common items for science experiments. None of these have ever been a problem for us and often we already have them. A few times a year you will need to provide a book for a reader's choice unit but these are easily found at most libraries or cheap from used book sellers on eBay.


Do they pay towards your internet cost since internet is required?

This depends on the school. Some schools offer an internet stipend and you will receive a check over the summer to reimburse you partially for internet costs. This usually averages $10 for each month your family was enrolled, and it is per family not per student. If your child was enrolled all year this check will be $110. Not all schools participate so you’ll want to ask.


Despite the misconceptions many people have about virtual school, I know it is best for our family. Our children are thriving and are reading ahead of their grade level by several grades. We are never sick anymore and our kids love that they can have the freedom to move around while learning. Sometimes they even read and work outside. With so many parents concerned about sending their children back into a school building with the virus still looming large, now is the perfect time to consider making the switch to virtual school.


 

Do you or someone you know have a child in virtual school? What are your thoughts? Or, are you considering enrolling your child and have questions or concerns? Please let me know in the comments!

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