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Some students thrive with virtual learning, plan to stay digital

One year after the pandemic, online learning is here to stay for some students who are thriving with the virtual option.

ATLANTA — When classrooms abruptly began closing last March, schools across the country pivoted in the wake of an emerging pandemic. 

Many students dealt with the hurdles of the digital classroom as systems crashed and families struggled to log in to the new virtual classrooms. 

While the detrimental effects of online learning have been documented, some students have found new success.

Michelle Smith said she was always a 'stickler for school,' but the pandemic's remote learning set up led her to discover something new about her 11-year-old daughter. 

"I was always at the school, volunteering, helping them get things done," Smith said, telling 11Alive she'd never considered alternatives to face-to-face learning prior to the pandemic. 

"I learned during this time that we've been home and online, she's a self motivator," Smith said, adding that her daughter has been quick to understand her lessons and finish assignments. 

RELATED: US public school enrollment dips as coronavirus disrupts education

"I did not know that while she was in school, she always did well. But I did not know that she felt bored," she said. 

She said her daughter is not only thriving in remote learning, the 5th grader is tapping into the extra time teachers reserve to repeat instructions, teaching herself Japanese and the violin. 

The Smith family is such fans of the online option, 11-year-old Nichelle will join Fulton County School's new Fulton Academy of Virtual Excellence this fall. 

"A lot of families have realized that the virtual option is working for them," Dr. Gyimah Whitaker, Deputy Chief Academic Officer with Fulton County Schools said. "It's working for their lifestyle, it's working for their children, and they want to continue as an option."

RELATED: Remote students have more work and sleep less, new study suggests

According to the district, more than 700 families of Fulton's 90,000 students have already committed to the full-time virtual school with attendance initially capped by the district at 1,000 students. District leaders are also exploring ways to offer some of the features of the brick and mortar school as well, by tapping into virtual clubs and artist-in-residence or teacher-in-residence opportunities. 

"We've learned a lot over the year. I think all of Americans learned a lot over the years, and there are ways to connect students virtually, that we never dreamed," Whitaker said. 

The trend to continue offering online options is not just unique to the metro but a conversation happening in schools across the country. 

In fact, a recent survey by Rand Corporation showed two out of ten districts have already adopted, plan to adopt or are considering virtual school as an option after the pandemic.

While a spokesperson for Georgia Department of Education said state officials has not surveyed districts plans for virtual options, state officials did say they "know that many districts will continue to offer virtual classrooms and virtual courses as an option even as the pandemic subsides." 

RELATED: Cobb County Schools to let families pick between in-person or virtual learning for fall

"We have offered virtual courses from the State level through Georgia Virtual for more than a decade, and many districts also have their own offerings through other virtual course providers. We also have a few full-time virtual schools," Matt Cardoza, Dir. of External Affairs and K-12 Public Health Liaison said. "What is different now is that districts offer full-time virtual classrooms and a virtual experience instead of face-to-face."

"We are confident that families can make the decision about what context suits their children’s learning needs," Cardoza said. "We believe most students thrive best in a face-to-face environment, but for some students high-quality full-time online education offers a good alternative."

It was an alternative the Smith family never considered before the pandemic. 

"I'm just grateful for the opportunity to learn something new about my daughter and see her do well," Smith said.