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The future of virtual teaching is all about school funding

July 24, 2021, 5:00 PM UTC

The virtual classroom was a necessity during the pandemic, and data suggest it’s here to stay for the long-term: The global virtual classroom market is expected to reach $19.6 billion by 2024 according to a report by researcher Market Data Forecast. 

There is a growing post-pandemic appetite for virtual instruction among school leaders. In a 2020 report titled “Remote Learning is Here to Stay,” the RAND Corporation surveyed 375 school district leaders from across the country and found that over a third of them are interested in continuing some form of virtual learning after the pandemic subsides.

Some politicians are also eager to jump on the virtual learning bandwagon. In May of 2020, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced a partnership with the Gates Foundation to examine the use of technology and virtual instruction in education. When unveiling the partnership, Chalkbeat quoted Cuomo as saying: “The old model of, everybody goes and sits in a classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom, and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms — why, with all the technology you have?”

However, a number of researchers and others with expertise in virtual instruction warn that it is not a panacea, and that schools and states must be thoughtful in how they implement virtual teaching as they look toward next school year and beyond.

“There’s an interesting phenomenon of some kids finding it more comfortable to be in a virtual setting…but that does not appear to be true for the majority of students,” Steven Wilson, co-founder of the nonprofit National Summer School Initiative (NSSI), said. “We’re seeing…a lot of disengaged kids…cameras being switched off.”

Wilson, also the founder and former CEO of the Ascend Learning network of public charter schools, formed NSSI, since renamed Cadence Learning, in April 2020 with the goal of accelerating student learning and building teacher capacity in the face of massive pandemic learning loss. He characterizes the move from in-person to virtual instruction during the pandemic as a “net negative” for kids and “largely a failure.”

So what’s behind the expanding appetite for virtual instruction in spite of these warnings? 

Districts are turning to virtual instruction as a solution to regional and subject area teacher shortages. Though teacher shortages are not new, parents and schools are more comfortable with virtual instruction than ever before, thanks to the pandemic.

Shaily Baranwal founded Elevate K-12 in 2015 for exactly this purpose. Elevate K-12 is a for-profit corporation that streams live virtual teachers into classrooms primarily in low-income school districts.

“I’m very focused on low-income students because the U.S. currently [has] a geographic problem,” Baranwal said. “It’s the low-income areas where they have the teacher shortage.”

Though Baranwal initially founded Elevate K-12 to provide supplemental instruction, the company moved to offering whole-class instruction in a variety of core subjects in 2018. That now makes up 98 percent of Elevate K-12’s business, and business has been on the rise since the pandemic.

Baranwal estimates that Elevate K-12 was averaging around 85 percent year-over-year growth in revenue before the pandemic. She says that they are now above 100 percent year-over-year growth and could be on track to hit 150-200 percent in the future.

Elevate K-12 employs virtual certified teachers who are streamed into classrooms, while a “classroom coach,” who is employed by the school district and may not be a certified teacher, supervises students in-person in the classroom. 

Trent North, superintendent of the Douglas County school district in Georgia, first partnered with Elevate K-12 in 2018, when he contracted for four virtual teachers. He now contracts for about 20 Elevate K-12 teachers, and he predicts that his district will continue to do so for at least the next three years.

Partnering with Elevate K-12 allows North to offer classes that he might not otherwise have a qualified teacher for, such as foreign language, physical science, or math. North said that it also mitigates the risk of hiring a low-performing teacher simply to fill a vacant position late in the hiring season.

Though there is a clear teacher shortage in North’s district—as of July , he was still looking to fill 60 general education and 19 special education positions for the upcoming school year—and others across the country, teacher shortages aren’t an inevitability. They’re caused by a number of factors, one of the largest being low teacher pay. Teachers on average make almost 20 percent less than their peers in similar professions. 

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers—a union representing nearly 200,000 members in New York—has seen teacher shortages caused by low pay in his work with districts outside New York.

“The reason you have these teacher shortages, especially in the South, is the salary for teachers is ridiculous,” Mulgrew said. “We had a district [in Florida where] the top salary after 15 years was $46,000. [This district said] we can’t hire teachers, so we want to go all virtual. [I said] you can’t hire a teacher because…if you worked in the school, you couldn’t afford to live here.”

District leaders’ responses on the RAND survey echo this concern: Over two-thirds reported that they anticipate having inadequate funding to cover staffing needs as their schools recover from the pandemic.

Underfunding of education on the state level is at the heart of the problem. 

Though school funding formulas vary by state, all schools across the country receive only about eight percent of their funding from the federal government. The remainder is funded by states and localities.

The Education Law Center produces a yearly report that seeks to answer three key questions about each state’s education funding: Does the state provide adequate funding for students to meet educational outcomes? What percentage of a state’s overall revenue do they spend directly on K-12 education? And does the state allocate a larger share of money to low-income school districts? This last question is an important one because low-income districts require more funding to meet their students’ needs and achieve the same academic outcomes as their high-income counterparts.

Each state receives a grade for each measure, and for the most part, states fared poorly on the 2020 report. Only 2 states—Alaska and Wyoming—scored an A or B on all three measures. The report also found that school funding took a sizable hit during the Great Recession and hasn’t fully recovered in most states.

Now, in the wake of the pandemic, another potential budget crisis looms. 

Some states, including New York and Georgia, made sizable cuts to education spending in 2020. Though these cuts might appear at first glance to be offset by federal COVID relief funds, this is not the case. Federal funding is short-term and intended to supplement state funding to cover additional costs related to the pandemic, such as extra academic support for students who have fallen behind or additional school counselors to meet students’ post-pandemic mental health needs. It’s not meant to fill gaps left by reduced state funding, gaps that could be baked into education budgets for years to come unless states revisit funding formulas.

Low-income school districts are hit particularly hard by underfunding and budget cuts: On average, these districts’ funding is 20 percent below what researchers deem adequate for students to achieve national average test scores, according to a 2021 report from the School Finance Indicators Database. 

Policymakers and district leaders may be looking to virtual instruction to fill the void left by inadequate education funding, but Baranwal herself refutes the notion that virtual instruction should simply replace in-person teachers. 

“Truthfully, my goal is not to replace an awesome…face-to-face teacher, because nothing will replace an awesome…face-to-face teacher. But when that face-to-face teacher does not exist in your zip code, we are the next best option,” she said.

Roberto de Leon has been teaching English in-person at district, charter, and private schools for 15 years, and like other teachers across the nation, the pandemic forced him into virtual teaching in the spring of 2020. 

In his experience, it is possible to do virtual instruction well for a period of time, but it involves a great deal more thoughtfulness and training for teachers, and it takes teachers longer to prepare high-quality virtual lessons. He also recognizes that there are some benefits to virtual instruction, such as the ability to more easily bring guest speakers to his classroom.

However, de Leon does not see virtual instruction as a total replacement for in-person teaching. He named many challenges that he and other teachers faced last spring, among them technology glitches with students’ devices, difficulty assessing student learning in a virtual environment, and fewer ways to make class engaging for kids.

The theatrics, funny accents, and classroom visuals that de Leon used to great effect in his in-person teaching didn’t translate well over Zoom.

“My walls are covered in my [in-person] classroom,” he said. “So there are a lot of things I can point to, a lot of catchphrases, a lot of moments of inspiration or funny things that show off who I am as a teacher that are gone [in virtual teaching].”

When de Leon returned to hybrid instruction partway through last school year, it was the small daily moments of human connection that he found he had missed most.

“[I appreciated] the tiniest, tiniest markers of humanity,” he said. “How tall is a child?…Which ones like to kick a soccer ball at recess?…The human pieces can sometimes feel a little bit gone [in virtual classrooms]. It’s the reason that Zoom happy hours with your friends weren’t as fun as actual happy hours with your friends. It’s the same way with kids.”

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