On a recent Friday morning, Deanna Nye finished making pancakes for her three kids at their Bridgewater home and said it was time to prepare for the school day.
The kids — 10-year-old twins Tyler and Bailee and 15-year-old Trevor— gathered their supplies. But, instead of walking out the front door, they convened in their makeshift classroom in the kitchen.
With a whiteboard leaning against the wall and workbooks and worksheets sitting in piles, it looked like a scene from the early days of virtual learning that many New Jersey families endured during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Except in Nye’s home, where two of the children are immunocompromised, learning at home represents a lifeline, not a nuisance.
“This is the best thing for my kids,” said Nye, founder of New Jersey Parents for Virtual Choice.
While most of the state’s 1.3 million public school children have happily moved on from the days of Zoom classrooms and Chromebook lessons, a group of New Jersey parents is continuing the fight to bring back virtual options for students who have health problems or other issues that make it difficult to learn in person.
New Jersey Parents for Virtual Choice, a grassroots group started during the pandemic, is not asking local schools to return to the days of teachers trying to simultaneously teach kids in the classroom and students online. Instead, the group wants a permanent, free virtual public school program or online charter schools similar to those offered in other states.
The group says parents should be able to opt into a virtual school for any reason, including their kids’ health problems, emotional issues, bullying at school or other family circumstances.
“Any reason is the right reason, no reason is the wrong reason,” the group’s website says. “COVID started it, but it will not end the fight for virtual.”
Their cause faces opposition from Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, which has said bringing back statewide virtual learning would create challenges and there’s no substitute for in-person education.
“Evidence demonstrates that there is no substitute for in-person education,” said Alyana Alfaro Post, Murphy’s press secretary.
“And virtual education during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated mental health struggles and learning loss for our students,” Alfaro Post added.
Even as cases of severe illness from COVID-19 arc downward and schools continue to shed their pandemic protocols, the number of signatures on a petition calling for a public school virtual learning option continues to tick up, according to members of New Jersey Parents for Virtual Choice.
Last year, Murphy announced schools would be required to offer in-person instruction for the 2021-2022 school year and could only offer all-remote learning if there was a local COVID outbreak or other emergency.
“If buildings are open for in-person instruction, parents or guardians will not be able to opt-out of in-person instruction,” the May 2021 announcement said.
That meant many families that did not want to send their children to in-person school had to either homeschool or pay for private online schooling programs.
When Nye’s request to Bridgewater Public Schools for home instruction for her children was denied for the 2022-2023 school year, she pulled her three kids out of the public system and enrolled them in online schools and homeschooling programs. She estimates she paid about $1,000 for the first month of her kid’s education. That included the cost of Chromebooks, school curriculum fees and other resources.
Nye expects to continue spending $400 to $500 a month to homeschool.
“It’s infuriating, because we pay such steep taxes in this state, that they can no longer be afforded a public education”, said Nye. Her property taxes are $9,534 a year, she said.
“Having the option to choose a virtual education is something that New Jersey parents and children should have afforded to them,” she said.
Supporters of New Jersey Parents for Virtual Choice say they are not advocating for the same emergency remote instruction provided during the pandemic.
When New Jersey schools were ordered to close in March 2020, teachers and administrators scrambled to set up their own virtual learning models. The longer the pandemic and remote learning stretched on, the more it became clear some children were suffering emotionally and academically, education officials said.
Educators and parents reported some students were failing classes, falling behind academically or disappearing from school altogether. Results from the first statewide exams administered after the pandemic — in September and October of 2022 — showed a staggering impact on student learning.
Nye and New Jersey Parents for Virtual Choice are advocating for a model that will allow parents to opt into a fully virtual academy-style public school. These programs would operate independently from in-person schools and have their own designated staff.
In a Change.org petition with more than 29,000 signatures, New Jersey Parents for Virtual Choice makes several demands. The first is to allow New Jersey schools to offer virtual learning by contracting with existing online school providers, such as Acellus Academy, K12 and Connections Academy
The group is also asking for virtual-only schools to operate as free public or charter schools. In its third demand, the group wants parents to be able to choose a virtual public school for any reason, if it works better for their children.
The group also has a fourth request — a meeting with Murphy to explain the scenarios in which virtual learning is invaluable. While leaders of New Jersey Parents for Virtual Choice have yet to sit down with the Democratic governor, Murphy’s office said he is open to meeting with group.
The idea of a fully virtual school may be new to New Jerseyans, but virtual public schools have long been available in other parts of the country.
Before the pandemic, 32 states allowed online schools to operate and draw students from across districts in 2018-2019, according to research from the Digital Learning Collaborative, which studies online learning.
Enrollment in statewide online schools that existed before COVID-19 unsurprisingly increased by 75% during the pandemic, the collaborative reported.
By 2019-2020, 40 states had some kind of virtual or blended learning school, and 29 states provided online public education options full-time, the group said.
New Jersey has some virtual options, including the New Jersey Virtual School operated by the Monmouth Ocean Educational Services Commission for middle and high school students. But there are no statewide public programs that are free for online learners.
“I’m still waiting for a virtual option — a good one, a free one,” said Mercedes Bailey, a mother in New Brunswick who said she reluctantly enrolled her daughter, who has a seizure disorder, back in public school this year homeschooling for the 2021-2022 school year. Bailey said she was incredibly torn making the decision.
“I was forced to because there was no virtual option available for her,” Bailey said. “And I’m not a teacher — I want to make sure she gets the best education, and I have a full time job.”
But Bailey said she is concerned about the next COVID-19 outbreak or the next emergency.
“At the end of the day, we still need a virtual option,” she said.
In other states, some online schools are operated by the state — created by legislation or by state-level agencies, and funded partially or entirely by a state appropriation, course fees or grants.
In some areas, the virtual schools are overseen by a state education agency, a separate nonprofit organization, charter schools, higher education institutions or regional agencies contracted by the state, according to the Digital Learning Collaborative.
For example, Georgia Virtual School and Virtual Virginia are part of their state departments of education. But in Idaho, there’s a separate governmental entity created by legislation responsible for oversight of its virtual school.
Families may choose virtual education for “a variety of reasons,” said Tillie Elvrum, a school choice advocate and education consultant who has been advising New Jersey Parents for Virtual Choice.
Virtual learning may be a good fit for advanced students who need higher grade level material, neurodiverse students who get distracted in a classroom environment, immunocompromised learners who need extra health protections, students with mental illnesses, children who are bullied at school, teens with day jobs and more, Elvrum said.
“New Jersey would serve its students well to offer these types of opportunities to the students who need and desire it,” said Elvrum.
“I talk with New Jersey and New York parents every day about their lack of options and what we can do to help support them,” she said. “It’s really unfortunate that New Jersey has not offered these options that are available to hundreds of thousands of families in other states.”
Critics of virtual learning say it has its flaws. The alternate online schools can create tensions with traditional public schools. There are also questions about how much oversight online schools and their students get from the state.
The quality of the learning is also debatable in some virtual schools. A report on virtual schools produced by the National Education Policy Center, a research organization based at the University of Colorado, found only about 43% of nearly 300 public and for-profit virtual schools it looked at were rated “acceptable” by their state performance reports in 2021.
“One of the most important lessons we learned in the pandemic is that in-person instruction is the gold standard for teaching and learning in New Jersey’s public schools,” said Steven Baker, spokesman of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.
“While there may be very rare individual cases where that is not possible, we should be investing our resources in making sure every student has access to a well-equipped, fully staffed, safe and modern in-person school. Diverting public funds away from that urgent priority to fund online charter schools would hurt New Jersey students,” Baker continued.
“In a state that already has the best public schools in the nation, online charter schools would be a huge step backward,” he said.
Under New Jersey law, students are required to have 180 days of in-person learning per year. Recent amendments only allow virtual learning under certain circumstances (during a public health emergency, for example). Any changes would need to be made by lawmakers and signed by the governor.
“While the Governor understands that virtual learning may be preferred by some families, mandating that school districts provide this educational model will create challenges, especially amid the national teacher shortage,” said Alfaro Post, Murphy’s press secretary.
“As one of the best states in America for public education, our top priorities must be ensuring that all students have access to a high-quality education and that we continue to make progress to remedy the auxiliary challenges brought on by COVID,” Alfaro Post said.
For students who thrive in a virtual learning environment, the option to enroll in an online school for public education is irreplaceable, said Elvrum, the school choice advocate advising New Jersey Parents for Virtual Choice. Her own child is doing well in an online public school in Pennsylvania, she said.
“It’s never going to be an overwhelming number of students who look to the virtual environment, but it’s the right thing to do,” she said.
“A family never knows what may change in their circumstances and the ability to have virtual learning options can literally be a lifesaver or a saving grace for a family at any particular time in their kids education,” Elvrum said.
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Jackie Roman may be reached at [email protected].