For nearly two years, most aspects of our lives have migrated online—from school to work to social gatherings. But with the promise and subsequent approval of vaccines for kids between the ages of 5 and 11 last year, many parents anticipated a return to “normal” that included zero online class options. A recent analysis of federal data, however, suggests that our collective hunger for a return to pre-pandemic normalcy could actually be detrimental to student success.
So, let’s start with what we know…we know that more than half of college students were enrolled in online courses last school year, a number that is much higher than the 37% reflected in 2019 enrollment data. We know that 74% of companies plan to shift at least part of their workforce to permanently remote positions post-pandemic. And we know that the omicron variant may spread more rapidly than delta; in fact, some reports suggest the new variant can multiply “70 times faster.”
These statistics, among others, should lead us to one inevitable conclusion: much of our current and post-Covid future will be lived online. That’s why school districts must continue to offer high-quality online and virtual learning alternatives that prepare today’s students for the academic and career success they’ll enjoy tomorrow.
We, as a society, are making decisions that will have lifelong impacts on our kids’ health and their futures. Many schools across the country have canceled all virtual options. Even with many offices pivoting to liberal work-from-home policies, many districts have swung their doors wide open to students for mandatory full-time, in-person classes.
By eliminating online options entirely, many school leaders are putting the academic and professional progress of our kids in jeopardy. Some studies indicate that unless schools find a way to make up for pandemic-related learning loss, today’s generation of students will earn upwards of $61,000 less over the course of their lifetime. And as these students enter the workforce, they will cost the economy upwards of $188 billion each year.
But even beyond the educational implications of the past 21 months, it’s clear that the same skills gained through online learning – independence, time management, and critical thinking – are essential to student success. Whether they attend an online degree program at some point in the future or accept a fully remote job, heading into these life milestones with well-rounded experiences could make all the difference.
Simply put—our students can’t miss the chance to prepare for their college years or a lucrative career because of a skills gap that could have been eliminated earlier on. Going forward, high-quality online learning must be part of the equation. Even if every K-12 student can or opts to get vaccinated at some point, returning to the status quo still does not account for students’ varying learning styles or needs. Every learner deserves options that offer personalized support, socialization opportunities, and a chance to gain the skills they’ll need to succeed in the future.
For the thousands of students who were already enrolled in an online school or program prior to the pandemic, the future promises possibility and opportunities in line with the skills they’ve already mastered. But for all those students who still don’t have access to high-quality virtual learning options, it seems like the lessons we’ve learned during the past two years have been for nothing.
Online learning, when done right, has the potential to alleviate many of the educational and safety concerns facing school districts, teachers, and parents everywhere. In a country where millions of students are facing the inevitability of online college and careers without the proper preparation, we need to do more to ensure that high-quality online instruction is a chief component of school curriculums. Period.
We cannot afford to fail the future of our country. When will we decide that enough is enough?
James Rhyu is the Chief Executive Officer of Stride, Inc.