When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the 2020 spring semester, more than 55 million students were displaced from their normal educational setting. By May, 40% of families responding to a RealClear Opinion poll said they were likely to homeschool or enroll their child in a virtual school after lockdowns ended.

Accordingly, online public school enrollment spiked in the fall. K12, the nation’s largest online charter school operator, saw a 57% increase in enrollment in fall 2020. Connections Academy, the second largest, saw a 41% increase in enrollment.

As the pandemic continues, many traditional public school districts are also offering an option for students to learn virtually, using tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, while also offering in-person classroom learning as in other years.

While the terms “homeschooling,” “distance learning,” and “online school” have grown to be used interchangeably over the last 11 months, there are significant differences and similarities between always-online public schools and public schools offering a pandemic virtual option. Let’s take a look at a few.


Virtual public schools existed before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virtual public schools such as Connections Academy and K12 were established long before the COVID-19 pandemic, and are specifically designed to support distance-only learning. Pre-pandemic, about 300,000 students across 33 states and Washington D.C. enrolled in online public schools each year, according to National School Choice Week. From their inception, curriculum, supporting technology, and communications plans are designed for an effective virtual education.

Meanwhile traditional public schools offering an emergency virtual option are now just 11 months into virtual teaching, and have been forced to learn and adapt along the way. As Kentucky’s Ballard County Schools Superintendent Casey Allen told The Washington Post, “we’ll be building the plane while we fly it, on virtual learning.”


Quality of distance learning options at public schools can vary dramatically by district, while virtual public school instruction is largely consistent.

Because of the nature of emergency distance learning options in public schools, student success can vary widely between districts. There are many examples of parents being disappointed with the virtual offerings available in their districts. A fall 2020 poll from EdSource found that 75% of California respondents said distance learning was worse than in-class instruction. Meanwhile, because of the centrally-administered nature of virtual public schools, the quality is more consistent, with Connections Academy reporting a 95% parent satisfaction rate.


Both virtual public schools and traditional public schools offer instruction tuition-free.

There’s not much more to say. While online educations that charge tuition do exist, virtual public schools are tuition-free, just like distance learning options in the local school system

However, both options require hardware and an internet connection.

By nature, distance learning requires a device and internet service. Many school districts offering distance learning are working to provide laptops or tablets and MiFi devices for students, but supply chain issues and lack of broadband access in many areas have presented challenges. In February 2021, USA Today reported that a year into the pandemic, at least 11 of the 25 largest districts in the U.S. were still distributing devices or internet to students.

Depending on the school and the state, many virtual public schools provide a computer and stipend for internet services for families who need them. For some, the student is required to already have a laptop and an internet connection.


Online public schools are designed to provide a virtual education.

Unlike emergency virtual learning options created amid the pandemic, online school teachers have years of experience and are specifically trained to deliver instruction and connect with students virtually. These schools use curriculum and lesson plans aligned with state education standards and compliant with state education laws. For children with exceptional learning needs, online schools are required to develop and implement Individualized Education Plans.

To learn more about virtual public schools in your state, here’s a link to our page on virtual schools in Tennessee.