In a matter of months, education in this country has changed dramatically. With more than 50 million U.S. students in a state of limbo, engaged in varying degrees of quarantine schooling, questions emerge about how long this will last and what education may look like post-pandemic.

Most families are eager to resume their previous routines, returning to school and work as soon as it’s allowed, likely with strong social distancing measures in place. But many other families are quite curious about K-12 education models that favor personalization, small group learning environments, high-quality virtual programming, and other innovative alternatives.

A recent Brookings Institution report reveals that we “may see a more permanent shift toward telecommuting” continuing long after the pandemic ends. Similarly, some students are finding that they prefer this pandemic distance learning experiment over traditional schooling.

Additionally, a recent survey by EdChoice finds that more than half of respondents have a more favorable view of homeschooling as a result of the pandemic, suggesting a rising openness to different K-12 learning models.

As teleworking becomes more of a cultural norm, parents may want to share that freedom and flexibility with their children as well, seeking educational options beyond a conventional classroom. These four K-12 education models may continue to grow in popularity:

Forest Schools

Forest preschools and outdoor early childhood programs were already expanding before COVID-19. The New York Times reported last summer that “nature-based preschools have seen a tidal wave of interest in recent years,” pointing to survey data from a national organization that represents nature preschools and forest kindergartens.

These programs emphasize ample outside time, natural play, and exploration, and generally lend themselves to enthusiastic educators who enjoy helping children and imparting their love of the outdoors in a small class size setting in various weather conditions. And even better, social distancing measures become unnecessary.

Christine Heer, M.Ed. co-owner of Sprouts, the first licensed farm and forest kindergarten in Massachusetts explains: “COVID-19 is now forcing communities to look at new ways of offering safe, healthy options for education at all levels, and reconsider how to bring children back into childcare and preschool settings in a safe, stress-free way.”

Homeschooling

Although homeschooling during the pandemic differs from the real thing, the discovery that parents are more favorable about homeschooling now than before indicates that more of them will continue homeschooling even when schools reopen.

A recent informal survey conducted by Corey DeAngelis of the Reason Foundation found that 15 percent of parents say they will choose to homeschool when schools reopen. With more parents likely to continue teleworking post-pandemic, job flexibility may lead to more learning flexibility, as parents realize that they don’t need to be their children’s teachers, but rather can seek out tutors, mentors, and other resources.

Micro-Schools

The move towards smaller, less institutionalized learning situations may jump-start the burgeoning micro-school movement. Micro-schools generally are based in homes or local community organizations with about a dozen K-12 students, of varying ages.

Often students attending micro-schools are registered as homeschoolers but attend a micro-school either full- or part-time, where they engage with teachers and mentors. Parents seeking a consistent, in-person learning environment for their children that offers small class sizes and personalization are driving the movement.

“It provides a safe environment for students to ask questions… for students to be social with their friends and feel like they’re part of something, whereas the online virtual school, you’re home, doing a class with your friends who are not with you or not in the same room,” Josh Goodkin, Founder of Homework Helpers of Long Valley, told NJ Advance Media. “This almost makes it feel like you’re in school again.”

Virtual Schools

Through pure necessity, the pandemic has pushed many students into virtual learning. And the longer these children learn virtually, the more comfortable they become with this venue. Many states offer tuition-free virtual public school options, such as those provided through K12.

Some colleges and universities have begun to offer rigorous online programs for high school students that combine earning an accredited high school diploma with college credits. This combination is giving students more autonomy and flexibility in their learning while helping to defray college tuition costs. It’s a win, win, win!

As parents and students become more supportive and comfortable with virtual education, it can be assumed that new online learning programs will continue to sprout during and after this pandemic. One virtual school startup, Sora Schools, is already seeing more interest in its nascent, project-based program that serves high schoolers across the country.

“We’ve been growing a lot in the last couple of months,” says cofounder Indra Sofian. “Recently we’ve had many conversations with parents who are not prepared to fully homeschool their children and parents who were concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on their students’ schooling in the fall.

And as educational investors shift their portfolios toward tech startups during the pandemic, increased funding will likely be available to expand these virtual programs even further in the coming months and years.

Florida Virtual School’s enrollment is up 54 percent year over year for its online course offerings and 64 percent for full-time programs. Public schools’ online programs managed by the for-profit provider K12 Inc. have grown from 122,000 enrollments in fall 2019 to 170,000 a year later. Applications to Connections Academy, a virtual school provider owned by Pearson, are up 61 percent.”

While more comprehensive data still aren’t available, early indications such as what is occurring in Florida suggest that families will continue to migrate to virtual schools in greater numbers than ever before.

“A longstanding virtual provider that can describe with clarity and consistency what that experience is going to be may be able to make a stronger pitch than a district who says, ‘We’re still figuring this out,’” said Bree Dusseault, a practitioner-in-residence researching online learning as well as charter schools for the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Under such intense pressure, some brick and mortar private schools are shutting down, unable to cope with the economic shock. And if history offers any lessons as to what might happen when schools reopen, many parents may continue to keep their children at home, at least in the short-term.

NPR recently highlighted historical research by health care economist, Melissa Thomasson, who found that when New York City schools reopened during the 1916 polio epidemic, approximately one-quarter of the city’s schoolchildren stayed home, prompting the city to temporarily loosen its compulsory attendance laws.

If this happens in the aftermath of our current pandemic, well-regarded homeschool programs, such as Oak Meadow and Clonlara, could see a bump in sales as parents look for curriculum guidance beyond, or in addition to, virtual learning, and new curriculum offerings could emerge to meet growing demand.

A USA Today/Ipsos poll found that 60% of parents are “likely” to continue with home-based education through next year, and 30% said they would be “very likely” to do so even if schools reopen. By contrast, about 3% of children have been home-schooled in previous years.

Is the situation hopeless? There is no question that school administrators who may become depressed by the situation, and worried about what to do are being completely reasonable. What is a concerned, dedicated, and frustrated brick and mortar school administrator to do?

But after taking those human moments, these administrators need to realize that things don’t need to remain this way. With such a daunting challenge placed squarely at their feet, these administrators need to take a few deep breaths and get down to business.

What will be required is for them to become energized, creative, and infused with a greater determination and dedication to bring their students back to the schools. Contrary to what it may seem at first glance, this may be the moment of unprecedented opportunity for visionary administrators to create more imaginative and novel K-12 learning models that will give parents and students more of what they want.

Highlighting the Benefits of Brick and Mortar Schools

Perhaps the most obvious benefits that need to be highlighted are the critical social interactions that brick and mortar schools alone facilitate. Man (and child) is a social being that, despite claims to the contrary, can only be fully realized when people are in the physical presence of one another. All of the valiant attempts to duplicate this through various online venues can never match this.

The familiarity and structure of the classroom, the school building, and the playground are also important in giving a child a sense of physical context and structure. Sitting in a classroom, walking through a school building, and enjoying recess on a playground cannot be underestimated in providing a child with a sense of belonging and normalcy.

While it is undoubtedly beneficial for parents to play an active role in their children’s education, the online venue often places too much of a burden on the parents. Aside from preventing parents from working and maintaining their normal schedules, many parents are ill-equipped to assume such a central role in their children’s education. Returning children to the schools will reestablish trained and experienced teachers as the student’s primary educators.

And attending school will facilitate more meaningful relationships between students and teachers as those relationships become the outgrowth of natural social interaction. Being physically present will help teachers to more accurately assess their students’ academic and social progress.

Incorporating Benefits of the Alternative Options

But stressing the advantages of being physically present in school, while necessary, is insufficient by itself. Administrators need to be fully cognizant of some of the important benefits of the alternative learning options that have flourished during the pandemic, and endeavor to incorporate those benefits when possible.

Personalization is one of the primary advantages common to many of those alternatives. Where possible, administrators should attempt to reduce class sizes. Where this isn’t possible, other ways to enhance personalization need to be explored, such as having teachers give the entire class an assignment while concurrently working with individual students.

Akin to this, is the need to incorporate more learning flexibility for individual students that would facilitate self-paced learning. With the plethora of online resources available, the sky’s the limit as to how the benefits of online learning can be integrated into the classroom to create a kind of hybrid situation.

And finally, the explosion of accredited high school diplomas with college credit programs, giving young people more autonomy and flexibility in their learning, while helping to defray college tuition costs needs to be explored as well. While this may have been borne of the move to virtual learning, there is no reason that it needs to remain exclusive to that domain.

Administrators shouldn’t be afraid to integrate the benefits of online learning with the benefits of students attending brick and mortar schools. This integration, if done carefully, would create fresh and innovative school models that could provide students with the best of both worlds, to the benefit of students and schools alike.