Virtual School Meanderings

June 17, 2022

The number I wish we knew

John asks a great question here – and I think he doesn’t give myself enough credit for the response that he initially provided.  John mentions:

  • For our latest Snapshot we counted 650,000 students in full-time, statewide, online schools.
  • About 250,000 students are enrolled in California independent study programs, the vast majority of whom fit our hybrid definition.
  • [and later] We have estimated based on several sources that about 1,000 districts started or significantly grew online/hybrid programs during the pandemic, with the intent of keeping these schools operating post-pandemic. Perhaps 500 district programs existed pre-pandemic. An average of 500 students enrolled in each of those 1500 schools would sum to 750,000 students.
  • [which he totals up to] So after thinking about this a bit further—but still of the back-of-the-envelope variety—my prior guess of two million may be on the high side. Perhaps a range of 1.75 – 2 million is a better answer.

Another way to add to some of the certainty to the numbers, if you consider these six states have an online learning requirement:

  • Michigan (2006): successfully completed at least one course or learning experience that is presented online (i.e., 20 hours of online learning)
  • New Mexico (2007): an Advanced Placement, honors, dual enrollment or distance learning course
  • Alabama (2008): complete one online/technology enhanced course or experience, with an opt-out for students with IEPs
  • Florida (2011): at least one online course
  • Arkansas (2013): at least one digital learning course for credit
  • Virginia (2013): at least one online course

The NCES projected Fall 2022 secondary school enrollment for these six states available at https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d20/tables/dt20_203.30.asp indicated:

  • Michigan: 453,500
  • New Mexico: 100,200
  • Alabama: 217,600
  • Florida: 906,500
  • Arkansas: 149,200
  • Virginia: 407,600

As students only have to take one course (or less) in each instance during their four years, so let’s assume for the sake of simplicity that 25% of the secondary students will undertake the requirement each year.  That would give us 558,650 students per year in those six states that need to enroll in some form of online learning in order to graduate.

Now this 558,650 would also include all of the secondary level full-time online school enrollments that John mentioned (so that would decrease the 650,000 figure somewhat).  Again, for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that 168,300 full-time online school students in those six states – according the most recent Snapshot report – are spread out evenly across the 13 grades.  That would mean that approximately 116,515 of those full-time online school students are at the elementary level, so we’d only need to remove the approximately 51,785 secondary students.  This would mean that there were approximately 600,000 students in full-time, statewide, online schools after we removed the secondary school students from the six states that have graduation requirements.

Additionally, if you look at the “State virtual school summary table. Enrollment numbers are for 2019–2020 (pre-pandemic).” on page 13 of that Snapshot report, you see the enrollment for 17 supplemental programs.  Again, if we make some assumptions (e.g., each enrollment is a unique student) and add up the enrollment for these 17 programs – excluding the ones in the six states that have the graduation requirement – we get a figure of 366,432.

So if you add these data points to the two that John was able to speak about with some certainty, we’d get:

  • about 550,000 secondary students enrolled in online learning to meet the graduation requirement in six states
  • about 350,000 students enrolled in statewide, supplemental virtual schools (excluding the six graduation requirement states)
  • about 600,000 students in full-time, statewide, online schools (with the secondary students in those six states removed)
  • about 250,000 students are enrolled in California independent study programs

That right there is 1.75 million!  And that doesn’t include any of the students enrolled in the “about 1,000 districts started or significantly grew online/hybrid programs during the pandemic, with the intent of keeping these schools operating post-pandemic” or the “perhaps 500 district programs existed pre-pandemic”  If we accept John’s estimate – and I have no reason not to – that these programs could account for about 750,000 students, that would mean that we not have closer to 2.5 million students.

And this only accounts for programs that we know something about.  Four to six years ago I was an expert witness in a court case where the school district has created a full-time in-school online program and a full-time at-home online program.  However, all of the students in both of these programs were still enrolled in their traditional brick-and-mortar schools.  Even when asked by the court how many students were enrolled in the full-time in-school online program and the full-time at-home online program, the school district was unable to even provide a conservative estimate!  How many other districts have full-time and/or supplemental programs like this?

One of John’s musings is whether the 4% of students enrolled in independent study courses in California is reflective of a national average.  Those NCES tables I used above had projected the Fall 2022 K-12 enrollment as about 50,721,000 students.  If we used John’s musing of 4% of that figure it would be just over 2 million.  I think John is safe to say that there are likely at least 2 million public school students engaged in some form of online learning.  I personally think he’d be safe saying that there are at least 2.5 million public school students engaged in some form of online learning.  My guess is that John might have some more data that might shine some light on my blind assumptions (e.g., the grade breakdown of the 650,000 full-time online school students).

As a final word, I do think one of the things to underscore is the fact that there is no authoritative response to the question.  John’s delving into the data that he has, my musing above, we are all working with incomplete data sets and even if we all combined what we have we still wouldn’t have a definitive number of give.

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The number I wish we knew
And a crowdsourcing request

BY JOHN WATSON

On a recent radio interview, I was asked how many students are learning online. I tried to reframe the question, not entirely successfully, to talk about students in various forms of digital learning. I’m using this post to delve further into this question and determine if my answer seems about right, or if we can crowdsource a more accurate number.

The question: How many students are enrolled in online schools in the United States?

I think the better question is how many students are attending schools that:

  • Allow them to learn outside a school building, and
  • Don’t require them to spend much time inside a school building.

In other words, how many students attend online or hybrid schools?

Note that this framing of the question includes schools that students often don’t think of as online or hybrid.

My estimate during the interview was two million. Thinking about this further:

  • For our latest Snapshot we counted 650,000 students in full-time, statewide, online schools.
  • About 250,000 students are enrolled in California independent study programs, the vast majority of whom fit our hybrid definition.
  • These numbers are a year or two old (fall 2020 or 2021), but given the pandemic it’s hard to say whether they have increased or decreased. For simplicity let’s assume they are unchanged as of 2022.

Those numbers together get us to 900,000. It seems likely that there are many additional students in these schools, but how many, and where are they?

The main element not included in the above data points is all the district schools and programs that are primarily serving students who live within district geographic boundaries. These are the district virtual academies (many of which are actually hybrid despite their names), alt ed, some CTE programs, some early college high schools, and others. There are also schools run by intermediate units, BOCES, county education offices in California, and similar regional public agencies.

We’re not aware of anyone who has counted these schools and programs well. Compounding the difficulty of counting is that some of these aren’t even schools as defined by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). In some cases, students are officially enrolled in another, traditional school, even if they are learning from the hybrid school.

We have estimated based on several sources that about 1,000 districts started or significantly grew online/hybrid programs during the pandemic, with the intent of keeping these schools operating post-pandemic. Perhaps 500 district programs existed pre-pandemic. An average of 500 students enrolled in each of those 1500 schools would sum to 750,000 students.

Another way to think about this is about 4% of students in California are in independent study. This suggests a level of demand from students that is showing up in other states via the district programs including alt ed. Without an offering as well-known as independent study, it’s reasonable to think that students in other states are taking part in programs similar to independent study at about half the California rate, which would be about a million students.

So after thinking about this a bit further—but still of the back-of-the-envelope variety—my prior guess of two million may be on the high side. Perhaps a range of 1.75 – 2 million is a better answer.

Does this seem roughly accurate, low, or high? I would love to hear from anyone who has data, insights, etc. If responses change my estimate, I will publish an update. Send your thoughts to DLC@evergreenedgroup.com!

DLC member Ray Rose passed this note along for anyone interested in commenting:

Intent to Amend Regulations Implementing Section 504 Disability Civil Rights Law

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced its intention to propose regulation amendments to the Department’s regulations at 34 C.F.R. pt. 104, implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This announcement includes a call for public written comments addressing how to improve the current regulations. Comments must be submitted by June 30, 2022 and sent to Section504@ed.gov.

If you do this as a representative of your institution be sure you’ve dealt with the policy issues of making a statement – some institutions have policies about representing the institution.  But you should be able to make comment as an individual with knowledge and/or experience regarding 504 issues.

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