Distance Learning, Virtual School, and Homeschooling: What’s the Difference?

There’s a lot of confusion right now as parents are preparing for their children to return to school in the coming weeks. Except, for many families, “school” this year will be a very different experience. With schools across the country choosing virtual and hybrid learning setups, and news articles hyping up “pandemic pods” and homeschool co-ops, families are trying to make sense of all the options available to them this year.

To help you make heads and tails of all these new terms, I offer a few definitions

Distance Learning means your child’s normal school has moved to a virtual or hybrid format. Your local public school may offer Virtual or Hybrid learning this year, allowing your child to work with their teacher and peers in an online setting. All of your child’s academic subjects are still taught by their teacher(s), just on the computer instead of in-person. Your role in this setup is:

  • Ensuring your child has access to the necessary technology and resources

  • Monitoring your child to make sure they’re attending class and staying on task

  • Assisting your child with work as needed

Homeschooling means you have opted out of the school system and are instead taking sole responsibility for your child’s education. You are your child’s teacher; you choose the curriculum, assign projects, and grade your child’s work. Your role in this setup is:

  • Choosing a curriculum

  • Establishing a daily “school” routine

  • Instructing your child

  • Grading homework and assessing your child’s progress

  • Locating “enrichment” opportunities (music, art, movement, etc.) as needed

Homeschooling allows parents to set their child’s schedule and decide what their child learns

Virtual School falls somewhere between Distance Learning and Homeschooling. Virtual Schools can offer a comprehensive curriculum in an online environment. Accredited virtual schools will act like your public school’s Distance Learning program, providing a comprehensive curriculum and subject teachers — your only job is to help your child and keep them on track. You must apply and enroll in this type of school, and most are already full. Your role in this setup is:

  • Choosing a Virtual School and applying

  • Ensuring your child has access to the necessary technology and resources

  • Monitoring your child to make sure they’re attending class and staying on task

  • Assisting your child with work as needed

Two other words you might have heard recently are Co-ops and Pods. These two models can both be used for Distance Learning students and Homeschooling students. The goal of both Co-ops and Pods is to share the childcare and instruction burden, and provide opportunities for children to socialize. Both models place the control and responsibility in the hands of the parents, allowing families to decide how, what, when, and where their children learn, and with whom; but it also means that parents must put forth much more time and effort (and maybe money) for this freedom, as well as take on liability.

Co-ops and Pods can offer exciting enrichment experiences from parents or local artisans. Co-ops group together multiple families who cooperatively teach and provide childcare. Usually one family will take one day a week; the group of students may go from house to house, or stay at one location with the parent teachers coming and going. Coops are a low- to no-cost option, but do require families commit considerable time and energy into teaching, leading activities, and providing a learning space.

Pods are similar to co-ops, but instead of parents teaching the children, the group collectively hires someone. This obviously increases the price to participate in a Pod, and can range from the hundreds and even thousands a month. The “teacher” can be a licensed teacher, or could just be a parent or informal tutor. The group may meet at a family’s home, the hired teacher’s business location, or a public space. Pods typically are also designed to create a “bubble” of families who restrict their outside interactions to reduce exposure to the Coronavirus.