I Taught School Online Before the Pandemic. It Works—When Done Right | Opinion

The last 16 months have been tough for teachers. Blamed by parents for keeping schools closed, struggling to teach online with substandard technology and curriculum, often dealing with their own childcare issues, it has been an especially thankless time.

Like many others, I taught online this year. But it wasn't a disaster. Because I was already teaching in an online school.

When the pandemic forced school closures and emergency online learning, the scramble to move traditional in-person instructional methods and materials into a virtual classroom wasn't a challenge I faced. Our teaching platform and daily structure were already in place.

This is an experience missing from the current national discussion about online learning. Virtual schools work. Hundreds of thousands of parents choose that option for their own children every year and that number was rising even before the pandemic. And the failure of emergency online instruction in thousands of traditional schools is being wielded as a cudgel by those with an interest in preserving the educational status quo.

Virtual schools are a necessary option for parents. Not every community can support a good brick-and-mortar school. And not every parent can afford a private school. So, when their kids are being bullied and face safety concerns, or have special needs, or they're not getting their educational needs met, or they simply need the flexibility to work around difficult life circumstances, online public schools can be a true lifeline.

They can also be a source of real opportunity, offering kids in schools without career learning programs access to classes that their home districts cannot support. A high school student who knows the career path they want to take should have the option to spend their time working toward it, no matter where they live.

Regardless of the type of classroom, when teachers fail it's because they're not being supported. That's why high-functioning schools invest so much in mentoring new teachers, providing high-quality curriculum, and building in wraparound support systems to meet other student needs.

At the school where I teach, we have invested heavily in leading-edge online approaches. But none of that was in place for most of the teachers who moved into emergency online teaching this past year. Nor were they working with students whose parents had made a long-term choice about learning online.

That is not to say my students didn't face challenges. With childcare options unavailable, many of my students became de-facto caretakers for their younger siblings. Others lost family members to the pandemic and were unable to prioritize their studies over their grief.

But the bottom line is that even with these challenges, my students ended the year with a passing rate of 96 percent, and I have no doubt that they'll begin next year on track.

For the students who will not be, we need all hands-on deck to get them back up to speed, which is another reason it's imperative that we move beyond the idea that "in-person is the only way." With class times in most places fixed by contract, schools need to provide extended supports, like tutoring or other inventions— which all may be more flexibly delivered online.

An Online Eighth Grade Class in Nevada
Kellie Goodall teaches an online eighth grade English class from her empty classroom at Walter Johnson Junior High School on the first day of distance learning for the Clark County School District amid the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on August 24, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. A recent poll shows a divide among parents about remote learning. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Districts could also offer a full-time online option for students and families who have thrived in that environment or who need it for their specific circumstances. This would serve the dual purpose of meeting student needs and providing a way to keep districts ready should any future event require large numbers of students to move online.

A close family member of mine is also a teacher, but in an in-person school. She told me she'd never agree to teach online again.

But that's not the same as saying learning can't happen online. I know of many teachers who found they were able to make more meaningful connections with families through Zoom than they were during the traditional twice-a-year conferences with parents. And students who might have given up on assignments with no one to help them were able to quickly check in and get the help needed to power through.

There's nothing wrong with believing that an in-person education is the best choice for some kids, but there's everything wrong with making that definitive choice for every student in America. As a teacher who has worked in an online school since long before the pandemic, I know that online schools can and do work, and they should be an option for any student, or family, who needs or wants it.

There are millions of students who thrive in online schools, and for their sake, we need to ensure that option is always within reach.

Daiana Wheeler is a Response-to-Intervention (RTI) Administrator at Indiana Digital Learning School in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

The views in this article are the writer's own.