Editor’s note: This commentary from Travis Pillow, editorial director for the Center on Reinventing Public Education and former managing editor for redefinED, appeared April 25 on the CRPE website.

On March 13, Florida schools announced an extended spring break, which would be followed by a statewide shutdown extending into April—and now, through the end of the school year.

The initial closure order came on a Friday. The following Monday, the state’s largest school district, and the fifth largest in the nation, went live with its distance learning plan. 

The initial effort in Miami-Dade Public Schools had its flaws. It took until the end of the first week to distribute thousands of technology devices and mobile hotspots to students. Teachers and students reported difficulty logging onto online learning platforms. Some online systems crashed. And the plan continues to evolve. The district didn’t start taking attendance until April 6.

Still, the district has consistently been ahead of its peers nationally in assuring that instruction would continue even though schools were closed. Miami-Dade’s position near the head of the pack might not come as a surprise. The district is becoming a national darling, thanks to rising student achievement, its proliferation of educational options, and its flamboyant superintendent. 

But other Florida districts moved almost as quickly. A week after distance learning began in Miami-Dade, Duval County Schools returned from spring break and quickly went live with a detailed virtual learning plan that, unlike most remote plans in other parts of the country, called for teachers to deliver instruction and offer feedback on student work.  

In early April, CRPE’s analysis of remote learning efforts in 82 school districts across the country showed that 6 of the 19 districts offering a combination of formal curriculum, instruction, and academic progress monitoring were in Florida. Half of the 16 districts tracking student attendance were in the Sunshine State.

The sample is not random, so it’s hard to draw clear conclusions about response efforts in different states (though CRPE will bring new data to bear on those questions in the coming weeks). 

Still, Florida’s fast, fairly consistent rollout of remote learning highlights some unsung policy and leadership achievements that deserve more attention—from its sophisticated approach to virtual education to the skill and longevity of superintendents in some of its largest urban districts.

Since schools first closed in mid-March, Richard Corcoran, the state’s education commissioner, consistently asserted that schooling in Florida would continue, albeit virtually, while his peers in other states waffled or stayed quiet.

Education Reform Now’s analysis of state responses flagged Florida as one of the first states to accelerate remote learning from zero miles per hour to 65. But Florida schools didn’t start from a dead stop. They were already rolling, thanks in part to a series of policies put in place over the past decade. Since mid-March, school and district leaders have stepped on the gas. 

A national leader in virtual learning is right in the backyard

Florida is home to the nation’s largest public virtual school. Headquartered in Orlando, Florida Virtual School (FLVS) functions like a school district, with a state-appointed board. But it also behaves like an independent enterprise, offering courses to students all over the world and partnering with schools—including districts, private and charter schools, even homeschooling cooperatives—to help them offer virtual courses using its technology and, in some cases, its teachers. 

Corcoran and other state officials are tapping this resource in their crisis response. The virtual school is allowing tens of thousands more students to enroll in more than 100 courses, without diverting any funding away from the school districts these students normally attend.

There’s no question the presence of FLVS will help support Florida students through the move to remote learning. It’s also offering online education resources to parents and educators.

But the statewide virtual school has also played an underappreciated role helping districts across the state build out their own virtual learning programs.

Every school district in the state has some virtual learning capacity

For most of its 23-year history, FLVS never competed directly with school districts for funding. It was funded through a standalone line item in the state budget. Districts didn’t lose any revenue if a student enrolled in an FLVS course, and frequently referred students to FLVS for enrichment, summer learning, or classes they couldn’t offer themselves—such as electives, foreign languages, or Advanced Placement.

A growing number of districts began using FLVS technology and know-how to operate their own virtual schools.

The landscape shifted in 2013 when state lawmakers passed an overhaul of virtual learning funding and policy. The new law pitted districts and FLVS competition for students and funding. It also required every district in the state to offer a suite of online learning options—some of which would be operated by well-known online learning companies, such as K12.

The increased competition for students and funding encouraged more school districts to promote their own virtual schools, often FLVS franchises, to compete for virtual students. Almost every large or midsize district in the state now operates a virtual school that employs a local principal and local teachers. Most small districts are members of rural consortia that do the same. 

This might not have prepared the state’s brick-and-mortar classroom teachers for the rapid shift to virtual learning. But it meant that nearly every district in the state had educators and administrators on staff with experience running virtual schools.

As Kevin Hendrick, associate superintendent for Pinellas County Schools, told the Tampa Bay Times before remote learning began: “We have some teachers who do this every day. We have the model. … It’s just a matter of taking it out to the masses.”

Fast-moving, high-capacity districts helped pave the way for others

Two days before schools closed all over the state, the Miami-Dade school district had already inked a plan with its local teachers union green-lighting the shift to remote learning. 

As Superintendent Alberto Carvalho recently recounted, the district had been monitoring the crisis and planning in advance. The district published the first iteration of its instructional continuity plan before schools closed and encouraged others to borrow its ideas. 

Other large districts also had a jump start. Rob Bixler, the associate superintendent for curriculum and digital learning at Orange County Public Schools, noted that the Orlando school district’s initial remote learning plan came together in the course of a week. 

The district already had practices in place—including one-laptop-per-student policies in all of its middle and high schools, as well as partnerships with companies that provided mobile hotspots—that simply needed to be consolidated in one document. 

And since the department in charge of instructional technology also writes curriculum, the district office can share its low-tech solutions—such as lesson packets mailed to tens of thousands of elementary school families—with teachers so they can prepare in advance to help students with their work.

“We are constantly adjusting, troubleshooting and brainstorming to support our students, teachers and parents,” Bixler wrote in an email. 

Orange and Miami-Dade Counties were among the first large urban districts in the country to carry out remote learning plans that called for teachers to deliver instruction and monitor their students’ academic progress. Florida’s remaining large urban districts (Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, and Palm Beach and Pinellas Counties) joined them near the head of the pack.

Other districts in the state borrowed elements of the early movers’ plans and swapped ideas behind the scenes, at times with the help of groups such as the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, which often serves as a hub for problem solving among the state’s 67 district leaders. 

After the frenetic first few weeks, Florida districts have begun to stabilize. Miami-Dade rolled out version 2.0 of its remote learning plan earlier this month. It included plans to track student attendance, which has revealed what Carvalho has called “digital deserts,” where students from low-income and immigrant communities struggle to connect with their schools. Moving quickly allowed these districts to discover barriers quickly, and start working on solutions.

What other states can learn from Florida’s example

Some of the policies that helped normalize virtual education across Florida might not be worth replicating. The state requires every public school student to take an online course before they graduate—a requirement that’s come under criticism and seen some changes.

But some of the policies and leadership decisions that helped Florida districts respond quickly to this crisis could be useful elsewhere.

Among them:

·       Assertive state leadership articulated a clear expectation that instruction would continue, albeit remotely, when school campuses were closed, but gave districts flexibility to figure out many of the details.

·       The state has intentionally fostered organizations, such as FLVS, that are designed to drive innovation—by serving students directly, partnering with other schools, and serving as a statewide resource.

·       Rather than cede the online learning market to an oligopoly of large virtual charter schools with questionable business practices, poor outcomes, and ill-conceived oversight, Florida’s virtual education policy has encouraged a diffusion of virtual education expertise into school districts, and enables competition between different providers—including FLVS, local district programs, well-known national players such as K12 and Connections Academy, charter school organizations such as Academica (which came quickly out of the gate with its own remote learning effort), and other online providers. The framework is far from perfect but has produced a more diverse array of online learning options than exist in other states.

·       High-capacity leaders in large districts proactively prepared for a disruption and shared their plans with the state Department of Education and counterparts in other districts.

All of these conditions helped enable the rapid rollout of remote learning in Florida—and could enable faster disaster responses or more diverse online learning ecosystems in other states.

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