Alabama prepares for more students to choose online school next year

Updated May 28, 9:22 AM; Posted May 28, 7:30 AM

Online learning
Alabama prepares for more students to choose online learning.

By Trisha Powell Crain

Alabama’s schools could look very different when classes start again in August, and not just because teachers could be wearing masks. Alabama classrooms could also be missing hundreds of thousands of children.

“There’s a real belief among all of us that we’re going to have 15% to 20% of parents who are not going to want to put their kids back in traditional school,” Athens Superintendent Trey Holladay told

That’s just an estimate, he said, based on the percentage of parents who have the ability to keep their child home without much difficulty, like two-parent households where one parent is not working outside the home.

“Just think,” he added, “if just 10% of 730,000 kids leave, that’s 73,000 kids.” Holladay isn’t worried about losing students in his district, but, he said, “I’m worried about it for our state.”

Athens Renaissance is a virtual school within Athens City Schools, one still adding students.

Related: Masks, small student groups, Alabama guidelines for reopening schools

“We’ve gotten about 180 new (virtual students),” he said, “and we’ve got a couple of hundred more to go through, and it’s just May,” adding that the school can add 300 to 400 new students without difficulty.

The school district sees an average growth of about 125 students each year, Holladay said, but of the new enrollees they have added, “99% of them are out of district.” That’s students who live elsewhere in Alabama but plan to attend online school through the Athens district.

national USA Today/Ipsos poll, released Tuesday, contains even more startling projections, with 59% of parents polled with students in kindergarten through 12th grade saying they are very or somewhat likely to pursue at-home learning—online school or homeschool—for their children if schools reopen in the fall.

Overall, the poll this week showed, 30% of parents said they are very likely to do at-home learning, and in the South, 64% of parents said they are very likely to pursue at-home learning.

Alabama has not made any projections of what parents might choose for their children, Alabama State Department of Education Communications Director Michael Sibley said, but has taken steps to form a statewide virtual school.

“We are heading into uncharted territory with opening schools for the first time since living in the age of COVID-19,” Sibley wrote in an email to

When schools closed in Alabama in mid-March, all learning stopped for nearly three weeks as districts scrambled to move to distance learning. Nearly all of Alabama’s 1,500 schools went online, but some still relied on hardcopy instructional packets.

“We do not want to encourage an over reliance on virtual learning,” Sibley continued. “However, in an abundance of caution, we want to have a virtual option in place that school systems across the state can take advantage of in the event it is needed.”

Related: Teachers in masks, lunches in classrooms, CDC guidelines envision stark new year for schools

The department issued a request for proposal, posted last week, for the statewide virtual school, and responses are due by June 5. The proposal calls for the virtual school to be ready to open in August.

Holladay said the push for a statewide virtual school is due in part to competition over students and the state funding attached to them.

“The big concern with the state and with other systems is ‘I’m fixing to lose all of my kids to (Alabama Virtual Academy) or (Limestone County Virtual School provider) Connections,” Holladay said. In Eufaula, for example, more than half of the district’s students are virtual.

“I think they’re looking to expand so they don’t have that fight between systems that have big virtual (schools).”

Sibley said he was unaware of any concerns about competition for students between districts.

Under the ALSDE’s proposal, students could enroll in virtual school and be counted in their current school district’s funding allocation. However, if students leave their home district for one of the local district-operated statewide virtual schools, that money follows the student to the district operating the virtual school.

Alabama will join six other states in offering full-time virtual school to students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Those states include Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, North Dakota, South Carolina and West Virginia.

Virtual school enrollment has grown in recent years, with the first statewide K-12 virtual school opening under the oversight of Eufaula City Schools at the start of the 2016-17 school year with 15 students. The Eufaula City School district as a whole jumped from 2,691 students in 2015-16, to 5,640 students in the school year that just ended.

Just over 6,100 Alabama students were enrolled in one of Alabama’s four K-12 virtual schools during the school year that just ended, up from 5,400 the previous year. The schools are located across the state and enroll students from anywhere, regardless of where they live.

The four statewide K-12 virtual schools and their student enrollment for the school year that just ended are:

  • Alabama Virtual Academy at Eufaula City Schools – 3,091
  • Athens Renaissance Schools, Athens City Schools –125
  • Genesis Innovative Schools, Conecuh County schools – 616
  • Limestone County Virtual School Center – 2,298

A fifth statewide virtual school, Alabama Destination Career Academy, opened at the start of the 2019-20 school year for kindergarten through ninth-graders and is adding 10th graders for next school year. The school, with plans to expand to 12th grade, is being offered through Chickasaw City Schools in Mobile County.

Each of the schools, with the exception of Athens Renaissance, is affiliated with national virtual school providers K12 or Pearson’s Connections Academy.

The state’s current online school, ACCESS, serves only seventh through 12th graders.

In Athens, school officials scaled back on their virtual program after initially accepting a large number of students statewide. School officials found that the blended online experience, where students take some of their classes online, but also at times show up at a traditional school, is “more productive,” according to Holladay.

Even in his district, there is competition for students among schools.

If students shift to virtual at the start of the year, funding for teachers at traditional schools in Athens will shift to the virtual school, he said.

Things get even more complicated for schools and districts if students first enroll in a virtual school outside of the district and then shift back into their traditional school when parents feel safer doing so.

If that student enrolls in one of the local district-operated virtual schools, those districts get that funding for the entire year, regardless of where the student ends up.

A statewide virtual school like the one Alabama education officials want will allow the student to stay enrolled in their home district, and any move wouldn’t hurt the district financially.

For parents considering virtual school next year, Holladay had some words of advice.

The best kind of virtual student is highly-dedicated, self-directed and highly-disciplined. In other words, virtual school isn’t for everyone, he cautioned.


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