Let me begin by congratulating the hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin parents who have made countless adjustments for their children since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether you converted your man cave or sewing room to an impromptu classroom or if you just made a special place for young learners, the physical adaptations you made to teach your kids at home were significant, but probably the least of your efforts.
No one cares about their child’s education as much as a parent. No one has lost more sleep with worry during these past months.
As schools across Wisconsin now debate and decide how to reopen in the Fall, every family in the state needs to be aware of the fact that they have options. Pre-COVID-19, a majority of Wisconsin families may have been perfectly happy with their local public schools, but these are extraordinary times, and those local schools are changing.
As the President of the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families, I encourage parents to familiarize yourself with options you may not have known existed. I know a great many of you will explore online public virtual charter schools. And I want you to know that our parent-led volunteer organization is here to help you navigate a sea of information you never expected to traverse.
Let’s be clear from the get go. There is a stark difference between virtual schools and the on-the-fly, ad hoc arrangements school districts across the country made as the pandemic was taking hold this Spring. Our family has been involved in online distance learning here in Wisconsin for nearly a decade. (Virtual schools have been operating here for nearly two decades.) Just as there is among their brick-and-mortar counterparts, there is a vast spectrum of virtual school options in Wisconsin. Some require more parental support than others. Some offer a more classic Western-civilization based curriculum. Others focus on STEM or foreign languages. But they have a common thread. They were built, from the bottom up, as schools that engage students while using an internet-based platform.
A virtual charter school is a public school authorized by a locally-elected school board, with a public school curriculum and certified teachers. Our kids don’t just utilize some turn-key lesson plans and watch instruction online. The educators in Wisconsin’s virtual charter schools are trained how to reach students, and how to educate them, without being in the same classroom. Wisconsin’s online public charter schools have systems in place to make sure students remain engaged. There is a tremendous amount of support offered to kids and the trusted adult in their home that helps facilitate some lessons.
I know from talking to families and friends across the state that some districts did a phenomenal job, under these incredible circumstances, transitioning to online education this past Spring. I also know that many districts did not. And even in the well-prepared districts, the level of engagement and enthusiasm varied from teacher to teacher. How could it not?
Unlike my family, the more than 850,000 students in more than 2,200 Wisconsin public schools did not make the choice to suddenly enroll in virtual schools. Online education was thrust upon these kids, their parents and the educational professionals who work with them. No matter how well-meaning the educators and administrators were, and still are, it is unrealistic to expect them to have performed at the same level as the established virtual schools.
Students in online public schools did not lose any learning time or fall behind in spring semester 2020. They went right on learning because their public schools did not need to change their usual operations. Teachers went right on teaching. Families could use the flexibility that these schools offer to adjust their schedule as they needed to meet the challenges they faced.
The upcoming school year looks uncertain for many school buildings. Parents who are looking for expected progress, quality curriculum, and support with managing home learning can find it in the online public schools that have been blazing this trail for years.
Under Wisconsin State Law, open enrollment is basically year round. The wide-open enrollment window closed in May, but the only way your student can be prevented from enrolling in an online public charter school that is willing to accept their applications after the deadline is if their ‘home’ district and the State Department of Public Instruction block them. That’s right. Wisconsin Law Trusts Parents.There is still time to enroll in tuition-free public virtual charter schools in Wisconsin.
Here is a link from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which lists all the established virtual charter schools in Wisconsin. https://dpi.wi.gov/sms/charter-schools/virtual-charter-schools
My organization does not encourage attendance in any one over the other. And we realize virtual schooling isn’t for every family, or every child. But we encourage you to do your homework. If your child is going to be educated online this Fall, Wisconsin State Law empowers you with the ability to choose the public school that suits you best.
Ty Babinski and his wife raise their four children in West Salem. Created and led by parent volunteers, the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families was formed to protect our educational choices and make sure parents’ and families’ voices are heard in the Capitol and around the state. Together with our fellow parents, families, teachers, and friends, we will educate policy makers and others on why we chose a virtual school for our children; how these schools work; the close, working relationship we have with our teachers and administrators; and more.