Virtual Schools Are on the Rise -- Would You Let Your Kid Go to One?

I practically danced on tables at back-to-school night this year when both of my daughters’ teachers talked about the new “homework light” policy (my words, not theirs) the school was embracing. Oh, they’d still need to complete additional work after hours, but instead of carting home bottomless packets of pesky busywork, students would be responsible for at-home assignments that involved lots of reading plus a carefully constructed online curriculum of activities.

“Um, aren’t we concerned about too much screen time already?” I wondered aloud. After all, I don’t love TV and I can’t stand computer games and fine, I’m sort of a witch.

The teachers were reassuring. “We’re talking ten to fifteen minutes a day,” they insisted. “The kids love it because it’s engaging and interactive, and we can track their progress online as they go.”

I was skeptical at first -- until I saw the vigor with which both of my daughters approached their formerly dreaded homework. They share a computer -- one they were suddenly fighting to access.

To do their homework.

Still, when I read about a new push to offer “virtual education” to the elementary school crowd -- as an alternative to going to an actual classroom in a physical building with a teacher leading lessons five days a week -- I admit I balked a bit. The company spearheading the movement, Virginia-based K12 Inc., offers online schooling to kids as young as five -- an age where I sort of believe the benefits of attending school lean more toward packing-your-own-snack and playing-nicely-with-little-Lily than stuff like the memorizing-of-math-facts and acing-the-standardized-tests.

Originally designed for home-schooling families and those seeking greater flexibility than the traditional model offers, online ed seems to be gaining momentum. And frankly, its proponents make some pretty compelling arguments: We live in a modern world and should enjoy the benefits of it. The old school (pun intended) approach to learning isn’t ideal for super-achievers, dropouts, artists, victims of bullying or kids of parents on the move. Why shouldn’t we consider the online option a viable one to moving to a pricier zip code we can’t afford just to give our kids a decent education?

Opponents question the funding, quality and frankly -- sanity -- of the online education option. How will these children learn to socialize and collaborate and work as part of a team? Even if they participate in sports and other extracurricular activities, will they fit in and be welcomed? Will they all develop ADHD from sitting in front of a computer all day? Don’t forget the reality that (as with home schooling) a child’s success will be entirely dependent on the effort his or her parent or parents put in. And let’s be honest: Who among us hasn’t let our kids watch “one more TV show” when we know we shouldn’t, just to buy a blissful 20 minutes of peace?

As long as my daughters continue to thrive in the traditional school setting, that’s where they’ll stay. But for the kids who don’t, I’m glad there’s another option.

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