TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) – Some parents and students may be ready to say ‘goodbye’ to virtual learning forever, after the pandemic outbreak resulted in months of online-only education, but many parents, students and teachers have hit their stride.

Some are choosing to keep learning this way beyond the pandemic now that they have gotten a taste of it.

So the question is: is virtual learning becoming the new normal?

“Education right now is going through one of those pivotal moments of self-reflection and looking at where we are going to be in the future,” said Dr. David Timbs, supervisor of technology at Science Hill High School.

After the pandemic threw students and teachers headfirst into learning online, many have landed on their feet.

“Do I think brick and mortar schools will be replaced? Absolutely not. But do I think every year that goes on we will see more and more virtual learners? There is no doubt in my mind,” said Timbs.

Virtual learning existed before COVID-19, just not on such a wide scale. The Tennessee Connections Academy is an online, K-12 public school that is free to all Tennesseans. They opened their virtual doors in 2019, just ahead of the pandemic.

“We saw really the need for a lot of online opportunities in Tennessee,” said Derek Sanborn, principal for the academy.

It was in good timing. After the pandemic hit in the spring, their enrollment started to increase over the summer. It continues to see a gradual rise to date with more than 3,000 kids enrolled K-12, compared to last year when they opened with 1,300.

“We were doing online before everybody else was. When the country had to go online with everything, we were able to continue, and we didn’t have to change a lot of processes,” said Sanborn.

For Johnson City Schools, being forced into fully-online learning in 2020 could be seen as somewhat of a practice run.

“I don’t think this is something that is short term. It’s something we were headed toward already and the pandemic just sped up that process,” said Timbs.

It has been in the works for years: opening the Virtual Learning Academy for Johnson City students, an entirely online option for instruction. A recent survey showed around 625 families are already interested in enrolling their students in the academy this fall, when it opens.

“We have hit something that is working for a lot of our students. Even if it is only 5 or 8 percent of our students, that is still meeting their needs in the way that fits them best,” said Timbs.

Even in a traditional classroom after COVID, the teaching methods learned along the way like Zoom meetings, video conferences, online chats and assignments will not be a thing of the past.

“Going back in-person, those types of things will stay in place. I think we have to, in education, continue to be flexible and meet families right where they are,” said Timbs.

These educators will be the first to admit, online learning is not for everyone. But for some, it really clicks.

“I think that now that families have been introduced to online learning and they have seen how that works, I think online learning is here to stay. The biggest thing is we give families the opportunity to make choices, and those choices are important,” said Sanborn.

Both Timbs and Sanborn say there are certain types of students who excel at learning online. So, the heightened interest they are seeing in virtual learning has just as much to do with children preferring this learning model as it does with health concerns over the ongoing pandemic.

Another benefit both educators add is that online learning is great preparation for high schoolers heading into higher education, as it teaches them to be self-sufficient.

If you are a Tennessee resident interested in enrolling in the Tennessee Connections Academy, follow this link. Enrollment is now open.

If you are a Johnson City resident interested in signing up for the Virtual Learning Academy, registration will open at the end of March. More information can be found at this link.