The Power of Remote Community: How Florida’s Virtual School Served as a Resource for the Nation

As we close the first full school year that many students have attended virtually, reflecting on the successes and challenges that learners and educators have faced during the pandemic is critical to strengthening the education sector as cultural norms around the world continue to evolve.

According to US Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey, 93% of US households with school-aged children said they had used some form of “distance learning” in the past year, 80% of which used online resources to support their learning. As a longtime online school, the staff at our Florida Virtual School (FLVS) were shocked when we heard reports of many families struggling with remote learning. After years of student success in the online learning environment, we knew good things could happen and we wanted to help!

FLVS saw an increase in demand during the first weeks of the pandemic

We expected many families to directly ask for our help, and we were right. FLVS saw a significant increase in in-state enrollment for the 2020-21 school year, with a 57% increase in course requests for our FLVS Flex option and a 98% increase in student numbers for FLVS fulltime. This increase meant many students across the state of Florida and beyond were taking online classes for the first time, and as a result, many parents were supervising online learning for the first time.

But Florida schools weren’t the only ones we helped during this unprecedented time. For 20 years, FLVS has served schools and districts around the world with online learning content and professional development, and due to the pandemic, even more school administrators, superintendents, teachers and many more others have contacted us for help and advice.

Prior to COVID-19, we were working closely with the State of Alaska to help them launch an online program in 2022. But with schools nationwide closing, our teams quickly joined forces to help Alaska to launch its Alaska State Virtual School years ahead of schedule in fall 2020 with our Global School program, which includes qualified instructors for students in remote areas. We also provided intensive pedagogical training to more than 170 state teachers eager to instruct students online during the pandemic, enabling them to launch their new virtual school with fully trained staff.

Share your knowledge

In addition to helping schools nationwide, our team wanted to do even more to make sure students could keep learning. Knowing that resources were essential for educators to feel supported, we brought together dozens of subject matter experts across our organization – from experienced online teachers and directors to program developers – to create engaging and thoughtful content that has inspired effective and successful learning outcomes in an online environment.
This content was launched on our online learning community on March 27, 2020, which grew into a one-stop online hub that offered hundreds of free educational resources for K-12 students, families, administrators, and to schools around the world. This tool added to our already vast catalog of nearly 200 online courses and professional development offerings, and we found ourselves in a sea of ​​eager teachers looking for more.

Between March 2020 and June 2021, we delivered nearly 1,000 training webinars to online and blended program leaders, teachers, and other support staff to help them with their local offerings. These trainings complement our online courses perfectly, allowing teachers to focus on meeting the diverse needs of each student instead of searching for resources that may or may not translate well with online delivery.

The connections we have made with schools, districts, and classrooms have been so comforting to all of us, especially knowing that we are impacting the learning landscape in our country and beyond.

Power in a remote community

One thing we know for sure is that in times of uncertainty, there is power in community. By sharing our knowledge and resources about online education at a time when many were new, we were able to ensure student success and help our colleagues, community and neighbors when they needed it most. Knowledge should not be kept by one person or organization, rather it should be shared more widely for the betterment of our industry and the growth of virtual education.

To that end, we will continue to share in our online learning community over the next year and constantly update our content with news, tips and key learning modules to continue to be a resource for those who need it. We’ve also modified and added to our Instructor Professional Development Catalog to help schools successfully use digital resources remotely or in the classroom. Each professional development course outlines relevant and practical best practices so teachers can walk away and immediately use what they’ve learned.

Although there have been challenges over the past school year, parents have noticed that an online learning environment is what their children need to thrive. In one recent survey conducted by FLVS, 65% of parents said they expect online education to be part of their child’s future. And, while too much screen time and infrequent social interactions were still a concern in the survey results, parents also noted the benefits they discovered from online learning.

Some of these benefits include better study habits, an individualized learning experience that allows for more one-on-one time with teachers, more frequent communication between parents and teachers, rigorous course content that is difficult but easy to understand, schedule flexibility, and more. These results also show the stark contrast between true online education, which has been around for more than 20 years, and remote learning, which has been rapidly implemented by school districts across the country due to the pandemic.

The greatest gift we gave us last year was to remind educators around the world why we do what we do: help students succeed. No student learns the same way as another, so having more options for students and parents, including a virtual learning environment, is essential to help our students thrive. Let’s continue to pave the way for them, together.

Courtney Calfee is the Senior Director of Global Partner Services at Florida Virtual School.

Featured Image: John Benitez, Unsplash.

Perry A. Thomasson