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Parents enroll their kids in Washington's public online schools amid coronavirus outbreak

Parker Miles Blohm
In this file photo from April 2019, Sarah King-Scott demonstrated how she logs on to her Insight School of Washington account to attend online high school.

Across the state, parents and caregivers suddenly have to figure out how to temporarily home-school their kids, after Gov. Jay Inslee ordered schools to shut down through April 24 in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Against that backdrop, some families have opted to enroll their children in the state’s public online schools.

Neta Green, a mother of two in Seattle, said she started paying attention to the outbreak early. She and her fiancé, who both work in health care, decided after the first case of community-acquired coronavirus appeared in California to withdraw the children from regular school and enroll them in online programs.

“We have older family members and didn’t want our kids exposed unnecessarily,” she said.

So she withdrew her son, who’s in eighth grade, from Hamilton International Middle School in Seattle and enrolled him in Pacific Northwest Connections Academy. That’s a public online school run by the curriculum company Pearson and hosted by the South Kitsap School District. Families have to fill out a form to transfer their children to the South Kitsap School District in order to attend.

Green said she just barely made the deadline to get her son in for the rest of this school year. A spokeswoman for Pearson said the school is no longer accepting students for this school year, but is enrolling for next year. However, a spokesman for K12 Inc., which runs public online schools called Washington Virtual Academy and Insight School of Washington, said the schools are still accepting transfer students for this year.

K12 spokesman Ken Schwartz said in an email that the Washington schools received more than twice as many applications from Feb. 24 through March 10 this year, compared with the same period last year.

Green said she’s pleased with Pacific Northwest Connections Academy so far. Her son has live online classes where teachers give instruction and students can ask questions and interact.

“There’s a window that pops up with whatever material they’re sharing,” she said. “There’s a window that has their webcam so you can see them and talk to them.”

Green said she thinks online school works well when parents are home and able to supervise their children’s schoolwork.

“I can see where kids would fall through the cracks if parents aren’t completely involved all the time,” she said.

In the 2017-18 school year, almost 10,000 students enrolled in the state’s three biggest online schools, according to data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. The schools, which are run by for-profit companies, are funded by the state and hosted by school districts and enroll students from all over Washington.

While many parents have praised the schools for offering a flexible learning option that can be done at home, researchers have raised concerns about the schools’ academic results, in particular the schools’ graduation rates. A recent report from the National Education Policy Center said virtual schools have a graduation rate of 50.1 percent, far below the national average of 84 percent.  

Right now, parents with children enrolled in regular public schools are trying to find online lessons for their kids and make use of web resources already offered by school districts. The Northshore School District experimented with offering online instruction after its schools shut down due to the coronavirus outbreak, but paused that approach after encountering inequities related to special education services, food and nutrition, English learner services and child care.

State Superintendent Chris Reykdal has said that there are challenges for districts that want to shift to online instruction in light of the closure. Some students lack computing devices or internet access at home, and it’s difficult to provide special education services remotely.

Kristen Missall, a professor at the University of Washington College of Education, cautions parents not be overly ambitious in how they approach academics at home, but she does recommend setting some daily expectations.

“The one thing all children need — actually that all humans need — is something of a schedule and a routine, even if it’s relatively loose,” Missall said. “So one of the things that would help any age student is just to have a brief conversation at the beginning of the day about what’s going to happen during the day.”

Missall recommends continuing to use websites that students are already familiar with and may have used at school. And if parents explore new online resources, they should pick lessons that are already familiar for their kids so it’s reinforcing what they’ve learned. She said otherwise it can be frustrating for children if they’re trying to teach themselves new content.

Education Coronavirus Coverage
In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.