NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Thousands of parents are choosing to keep their kids at home for virtual learning during the upcoming school year.

The Tennessee Department of Education announced this month that they approved 29 new virtual schools for the 2021-22 school year, bringing the total to 57.

They’re heading to school districts all over Tennessee, including the Midstate, like Cheatham County Virtual Academy, Dickson County Distance Learning academy, and the CMCSS K-12 Virtual School.

“I was a brick and mortar educator and principal for many years before I came online three years ago in July 2019,” said Derek Sanborn, Executive Director at Tennessee Connections Academy which started in the 2019-2020 school year. “One of the things I believe strongly is about that parent choice.”

The Tennessee Virtual Public Schools Act was passed and allowed local education agencies to create virtual schools starting in 2011 to offer an alternative mode of instruction for students. Fast forward to June 2020, when COVID-19 caused major disruptions during the 2020-21 school year, the Tennessee State Board of Education had an emergency rule requiring school districts and public charter schools to create Continuous Learning Plans (CLPs) that explained how they would continue to provide instruction in a fully virtual environment.

“Last school year, districts responded to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic by providing additional operating models and learning formats to ensure that families had options and students could continue learning with their classmates and teachers when out of school buildings,” said Education Commissioner Dr. Penny Schwinn. “While research shows that students benefit most from in-person classroom instruction, districts are ensuring families who prefer a virtual education setting for their students have those options and can continue to make the best choices for their children.”

That’s what the Tennessee Connections Academy is aiming to do as well: give families more choices through a tuition-free online public school.

Connections Academy has been around for about 20 years and operated in 30 states before coming to Tennessee in 2019. They had bigger-than-projected enrollment in the first year and just about tripled in size going into last year.

“A lot of parents had some concerns with the uncertainty going into last year with schools not knowing whether they were gonna open, whether they were gonna close, whether they were gonna do hybrid so you saw a lot of uncertainty and the certainty that we had was a big piece but we still continue to have kids where the traditional brick and mortar doesn’t work out for them,” said Sanborn.

He said their in-person field trips were halted during the pandemic but they’ll be ramping them back up this year, adding that it’s important for students to have in-person connections with each other even in an online learning setting.

“One of the great things in having this national network is they can network with other kids across the country,” said Sanborn. “They can network in their classes with other kids within the state of Tennessee because we draw from nearly every county in Tennessee so kids are getting to see life outside of wherever they live.”

They currently have about 3,000 students enrolled for this new school year, including 300 more from the previous year.

“Every student has different learning styles and modalities,” Sanborn explained. “One of the things the pandemic has shown us is kids learn in a lot of different ways and there is value in that brick and mortar education and there’s value in virtual education and I think the more choices that we have the better we are.”

According to state education leaders, the State Board passed a permanent rule in April limiting the ability for districts and public charter schools to utilize a CLP to provide remote instruction in the upcoming 2021-22 school year unless the Governor declares a state of emergency and the commissioner of education grants permission. Therefore, families wanting their students to continue getting a significant portion of their instruction remotely have to enroll their students in a virtual school.