After a year of fully remote learning, LaToya Gayle’s son recently returned to school in-person for the first time to take the MCAS exam. It was a disaster.
Gayle's 15-year-old son, who is Black, has an autism diagnosis and was the last student in his class to finish the MCAS test. His proctor, who is also Black, took a video of him while he worked on the exam. She laughed at how long he was taking, writing, “HURRY UP #imdone,” before posting the video on TikTok.
When Gayle's teenage daughter showed her the post, the mother felt crushed.
“When you see parents like pulling their kids out of public school, this is why,” she said. “It's emotionally exhausting to always feel like you're in a fight with an institution that is supposed to be helping your child.”
That kind of situation has boosted support for fully virtual schools, particularly among Black and Latino families. Districts across Massachusetts and the country are creating standalone online public schools without walls partly in response to demand from Black, Latino and Asian families.
Some of those parents say traditional school environments aren't working for their children, especially kids who are seen as different or have special needs.
Sonya Douglass Horsford, an education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, said the pandemic has accelerated parents' desire for more all-virtual schools.
“I think, for parents of color, in particular — and this is a generalization — but I think often times their experience and their engagement with school has led to a lack of trust,” she said.
The country’s teacher workforce is about 80 percent white women, who often look nothing like their students. There's also a widening achievement gap between the races, leaving families of color ready if not eager to try new educational models. Online learning has given parents a new measure of insight into their child’s education as well as a measure of control.
“I think what the pandemic has done is allowed a lot of parents to actually see or witness or experience, in some ways, the type of teaching and instruction that their children are getting,” Horsford said.
And many like it.
A recent survey by the Boston Public Schools found that more than half of Black families would likely send their child to a virtual school next fall. Forty-seven percent of Hispanic and 43 percent of Asian families said the same thing. Just 15 percent of white families showed a high level of interest.
Boston has proposed a virtual school for grades 6-12 with between 500 and 1,000 students. The same parent survey found that it was parents of middle and high schoolers who were most in support of the idea. It is unclear when officials will present the proposal to the School Committee for a vote.
Eleven other districts in Massachusetts are also planning their own virtual schools, including Natick, Attleborough and Falmouth. Worcester public schools recently canceled its virtual academy, which it had proposed for seventh and eighth graders, citing a lack of interest. But urban school districts in and around Miami and Atlanta as well as other cities are adding virtual schools to their lineup.
The school proposals vary, depending on the district and the target audience. For example, Boston’s says some families may want to continue remote learning because a student has “a physical or mental health condition that makes them feel less safe attending school in person.” Others might simply prefer the convenience or feel their children are more successful learning virtually. Some students who work may benefit from more flexible school hours or the ability to do study independently on their own schedule.
Boston officials also proposed to contract with a vendor to run the school, as did districts in Falmouth and Attleborough. Officials from those three districts did not respond to inquiries about their fall plans.
According to researcher at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, the number of fully virtual schools was on the rise prepandemic and reached 477 fully virtual schools nationwide in the 2019-2020 school year. Some are run by public school districts or nonprofits, others by private for-profit vendors.
Alex Molnar, the center's publications director, urged districts considering hiring a private company to proceed cautiously.
“They're all spectacularly wonderful, according to their marketing materials. They are the next wave. Everything will be easy,” he said. “None of which has been validated by actual third-party study.”
The state put one of two for-profit virtual schools in Massachusetts on probation for five years because of low academic achievement.
But after a year that left many parents reeling from both the pandemic and a stream of news reports about the fatal shooting deaths of unarmed Black people and renewed attention to police in schools and the school-to-prison pipeline for Black youth, parents like Gayle feel tired, aggrieved and open to change.
Her son has sprouted facial hair, matured into a deep baritone voice and grown taller than his father, but Gayle says it has not been a satisfying rite of passage.
“I know when people see him, because of the country we live in, they might see a threat,” she said, her voice cracking. “Then on top of that, he has these social challenges because of the disability he has. And then he's in a school system that is not preparing him to be a functional member of society ... It's like all these things are just so unfair.”
The proctoring incident at his school, Boston Collegiate Charter School in Dorchester, certainly didn’t help. Shannah Varon, the school's executive director, wrote in an email that the proctor is no longer employed by the school because of the incident.
“We hold ourselves to a much higher standard than what was displayed in this case,” Varon wrote. “We care deeply about all of our students and strive to ensure that they all feel that they belong at our school. Anything that prevents a student from feeling that they belong here will not be tolerated."
Gayle says she remains concerned about the process and blames school leaders for an immature hire. “In what world is it okay for, like someone who graduated last year to be subbing and proctoring an MCAS?” she said.
Although her son gets by with good grades, he spends a lot of his time trying not to call attention to himself or his autism. He has liked remote learning from his bedroom, and his grades improved. Even after high school students were allowed to return to classrooms for in-person learning this year, he chose to finish the year remotely.
“It was easier to focus on work,” he said.
For him, the experience makes virtual school look pretty good.