The Ultimate Guide to Online School – How Does Online School Work?

By: National School Choice Week Team

Due to COVID-19, many parents are worried about sending their kids back to school in the late summer or fall of 2020. In fact, according to one national poll, 40% of parents polled said they’re more likely to choose homeschooling or online school after lockdowns end. If online learning or K-12 online school are your top choices for the 2020-2021 school year, this page is for you!

Maybe you’re thinking about switching to online schooling, but you’re not sure how to make the switch. How does online school work? Or, maybe you’re wondering whether your state has an option allowing you to online school for free. We created this ultimate guide to online school answer those questions.



While the pandemic has caused interest in online learning to spike, families have been using online learning programs for years. Internet access has transformed our shopping and social life, and it is transforming schooling as well. Importantly, online learning programs offer students the ability to work from home (or anywhere with internet). That flexibility makes for a good fit for many families.   

As Chris McBride, superintendent at an online school in Nevada, describes, “There are many reasons students may need flexible schedules, from medical issues to competitive athletes to performance artists. Some families enroll at our school because they are escaping some of the bullying and other cultural/climate issues that are present in brick and mortar schools. Other families enroll because they view it as an excellent alternative to home schooling.”




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How to Switch to Online School

How Does Online School Work?

In the U.S., approximately 375,000 K-12 students attended an online school in 2018-2019. Online school students work from home and follow a set curriculum, submitting assignments through an online portal. Moreover, students receive feedback and grades from accredited teachers who may communicate through email, web conference, or phone calls. 

While parents aren’t asked to be teachers, online school programs usually ask parents to be involved in their child’s education. Parents act as a learning coach, helping their student stay on track.

You just are so much more in tune with what they’re doing. That’s such a benefit that you wouldn’t have when sending your kid through another schooling option. – Tara Boedigheimer, online school parent

Two of the biggest K-12 online school programs in the U.S. are Connections Academy and K12 Learning. Connections Academy supported-schools are tuition-free online public schools that are currently available in more than 30 states. They are operated by Pearson Online & Blended Learning K-12. Similarly, K12 Learning offers tuition-free public schools in many states, as well as fee-based independent courses and career classes.  

While some virtual schools are fully online, others are “blended schools.” So, what are blended schools? Blended schools are online schools that offer on-site locations that students attend from time to time. GOAL Academy in Colorado, for instance, has “drop-in centers” where students can receive tutoring, participate in activities, or simply spend time with peers.


How to make the switch

If you’re just getting started, here are steps you can take to switch to online schooling: 

1. Review state guidelines: First, find your state in our list below to review your state’s guidelines for online schools. Did you know that more than 30 states offer full-time public online schools for free? In other states, private online programs are available at a cost.

2. Connect: Second, reach out to the online school that interests you and get more details. Some may allow enrollment at any time, while others may have deadlines. 

Online public schools must accept all students, regardless of their academic performance or needs. Moreover, students are not required to take special entrance tests for enrollment in online public schools. However, some states place caps on attendance or funding, so make sure there is availability at the school you choose. 

When you reach out to the online school, you can also ask about the school’s expectations and what resources you’ll need at home. For instance, will the school provide a computer for your student? Does your student need a web camera? What’s a typical day like? How much parental supervision is required? 

3. Officially withdraw (if applicable): In many cases, if you’re currently enrolled in a public or private school, you’ll need to send a withdrawal letter to your school district. It’s a good idea to keep a copy of the letter, in case any questions arise. Also, you may want use this opportunity to request your child’s transcripts from the school.

Of course, your state’s guidelines come first. Please note that in some states, like Missouri, students only have access to free online schools through their resident district. In these cases, since the district is responsible for paying for access, families should remain enrolled in the district as they switch to online school.

4. Enroll and get started: Now, enroll in your online school of choice. Partner with your child to decide what your new learning routine will look like. For example, what time will your student start school in the morning? How often will exercise and outside activities be worked into the week? 


Expect a learning curve

If online school is something you and your student decide to try, even just temporarily, it is important to realize that there’ll be a learning curve. Don’t let that get you down!

“You just have to be open minded,” said Bryan Klochack, principal of an online school in Michigan. “We often refer to it as drinking out of a fire hydrant at the start because it is so different.”

While online school is not for every student and every family, it can make a world of a difference for some. As Klochack said, “Having that option for families to put their kids where they’re going to find great success: That’s what we’re all about.”



How to Find Out Your State’s Laws

What options do you have for online learning? Check out your state’s parent guide or scroll below to learn whether your state offers online school for free.

In 32 states, online public schools have been established by state authorities, by school districts, or charter schools, meaning students can attend these schools full-time, tuition-free. In addition, 35 states offer part-time online public schooling through course access, which allows students to use online coursework to supplement their education with specific classes. In many states, this is accessible, and sometimes even free, for private school or homeschooled students.

Sources: Evergreen Education Group and independent research by the NSCW team

While not every state offers online school for free, paid online school programs, are available in all 50 states. For instance, paid options such as Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (which is free to New Hampshire residents), The Keystone School, and Laurel Springs School are available to families in any state. You can learn more about public online schools and resources at the National Coalition for Public School Options and the Digital Learning Collaborative


New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia


Alabama offers several free, full-time online learning options for students, like Alabama Connections Academy and Alabama Virtual Academy.  For free part-time classes, ACCESS Alabama functions as the state’s virtual school and is designed for high school students to take courses that may not be available (or easy to schedule) at their schools. Public school students in grades 9-12 can take classes for free; nonpublic school students can take courses for a fee.

In light of COVID-19, the Alabama Department of Education is taking steps to form a full-time, statewide online school that any K-12 student could opt into while remaining in their current district. This option may be available by August 2020. 



In Alaska, middle- and high-school students in certain districts can enroll in online courses through the Alaska Digital Academy for a fee. As mentioned above, Alaska families can also consider national online learning programs for a fee. 



Arizona students can attend Arizona Virtual Academy or Arizona Connections Academy full-time at no cost. You may also be interested in checking out AZ Parents for Education.



Arkansas offers several free, full-time online learning options for students, like Arkansas Connections Academy and Arkansas Virtual Academy. For part-time classes, Virtual Arkansas offers online options for any Arkansas student, though online classes for students in grades K-6 are limited. Students enrolled in a public school can take all or some of their Virtual Arkansas classes online. While Virtual Arkansas’ website lists fees for courses, the local school district pays those, not students and their families.



California offers several free, full-time online learning options for students, like California Connections Academy and California Virtual Academies. While much of the learning is facilitated by technology, these learning programs offer in-person field trips and meet-ups as well. You can also check out: California Parents for Public Virtual Education.



Colorado offers several free, full-time online learning options for students, like Colorado Connections Academy and Colorado Virtual Academy. In addition, Colorado Digital Learning Solutions offers part-time courses for middle-school and high-school students. While Colorado Digital Learning Solutions charges fees, students attending Colorado traditional public schools and public charter schools may have their fees subsidized. We recently interviewed a Colorado online school, GOAL Academy, here. This online school has drop-in centers where students can work and frequent school field trips, offering families a unique blend of virtual and in-person education. You can also check out: Colorado Coalition of Cyberschool Families.



While most states have free online school programs, Connecticut only has paid options available at present, such as George Washington University Online High School, The Keystone School, and K12 International Academy



Most states have free online school programs, but Delaware does not at this time. Paid options are available though.  



Florida has the largest state virtual school in the nation. Any Florida student can take courses through Florida Virtual School, full time or part time, free of charge. Other free online learning options are also available, such as Florida Connections Academy and Florida Online School



Georgia Virtual School provides online courses at the high school level, plus some middle-school courses as well. Public school students can enroll full-time or part-time at no cost. Some state funds are available to cover tuition for private and homeschool students on a first-come, first-served basis. Other free, full-time online learning options are also available, such as Georgia Connections Academy and Georgia Cyber Academy.  You can also check out: Georgia Families for Public Virtual Education



High school and middle school students enrolled in any traditional public or charter school can take classes through Hawaii’s e-school. Parents who would like to enroll their student in online school full-time can hire a private provider.



Idaho offers several full-time, free online learning options for students, like Idaho Connections Academy and Idaho Virtual Academy. For part-time options, Idaho students in grades 6-12 may enroll in online classes through Idaho Digital Learning. Idaho Digital Learning is available to students in any type of educational setting, public or private. But, parents should check with their local public school or district for details, as fees may apply.



Illinois students in grades 5-12 can take supplemental online courses through Illinois Virtual School. While Illinois Virtual School charges fees, some schools and districts pay those fees on behalf of their students. Students can register through their local school or as a homeschool student. 



Free, full-time online learning options for Indiana students include Indiana Connections Academy and Indiana Digital Learning School. Another option Indiana students can choose is IU High School, a fully accredited online private high school run by Indiana University. Students at IU High School can take courses to supplement their educational experiences in brick and mortar institutions, or students may pursue a high school diploma online full-time. IU High school was founded in 1925, so it’s been allowing students to attain a high school diploma at a distance for nearly a century! 



Iowa offers several free, full-time online learning options for students, such as Iowa Connections Academy and Iowa Virtual Academy. For part-time classes, any middle-school or high-school student in Iowa, at the discretion of their school, can currently enroll in courses through Iowa Learning Online. However, 2019-2020 is the last year that Iowa Learning Online will offer that service. 



Kansas offers several free, full-time online learning options for students, such as Kansas Virtual Academy and Kansas Connections Academy. The Kansas State Department of Education also keeps a list of online learning providers, some of whom may also offer part-time classes, with or without fees.



While many states have free, full-time virtual school available, Kentucky does not yet have such an option. But, information on paid options is available here



Louisiana students in grades K-12 can attend Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy, an online charter school, full-time. For part-time options, online providers participate in the state’s Supplemental Course Academy program, which offers free classes to students attending underperforming public schools, public schools that do not offer a certain course, or private schools on opportunity scholarships. Students who do not qualify for free classes can take these courses for a fee. 



Maine students can attend free, full-time online school programs through the online public charter schools Maine Connections Academy or Maine Virtual Academy



Maryland does not currently have a free, full-time online learning program, but paid options are available, such as through K12



Students in Massachusetts may attend one of two free public virtual schools, either full-time or part-time, with an agreement from the local school district. Private virtual schools are also available. 



Michigan offers several free, full-time online learning options for students. These include Michigan Connections Academy and Highpoint Virtual Academy of Michigan. In addition, Michigan Virtual offers part-time online classes for middle-school and high-school students; fees may apply.



Any student who lives in Minnesota, even if they have permanent residency elsewhere, can attend a full-time online school free of charge. For instance, students can do this through Minnesota Connections Academy or Minnesota Virtual Academy. Free part-time options are available for students enrolled in public schools (including charter schools). In addition, paid part-time options are available for nonpublic school students. Click here for more information about full-time and part-time online learning options in Minnesota. 



Mississippi does not offer a free, full-time online school. However, students can enroll in part-time classes at the Mississippi Virtual Public School, and have their fees paid by their local district. 



Missouri public school students have access to  individual online courses or free, full-time online programs through MOCAP (Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program). In order to participate, students must get enrollment approved by their resident school district. 

Also, any non-public student in Missouri, from kindergarten through 12th grade, can take courses online through MOCAP for a fee. In some cases, such as students having certain medical conditions, the tuition can be waived.



While Montana does not currently have a free, full-time online learning option, Montana Digital Academy allows all middle and high school students to take online classes on a part-time basis. Also, as previously mentioned, families in any state can choose from paid online learning providers for a full-time option. 



While most states have free, public online programs that families can choose, Nebraska does not currently have that option. Paid options, like University of Nebraska High School online, may be available. 



Nevada offers several free, full-time online learning options, such as Nevada Connections Academy, Nevada Learning Academy, and Nevada Virtual Academy. 


New Hampshire:

New Hampshire residents, high school and adults, can take courses free of charge, full- or part-time, at Virtual Learning Academy Charter. 


New Jersey:

Unfortunately, New Jersey does not have a free, full-time online school option. However, New Jersey Virtual School offers full-time and credit-recovery enrollment to students in grades 6-12 for a fee.


New Mexico:

In New Mexico there are several free, full-time online learning options for students, such as New Mexico Virtual Academy and New Mexico Connections Academy. In addition, the state’s Public Education Department offers a supplemental online course program. The state-run program charges fees to schools who enroll students. Some local districts absorb these costs, while some pass them along to families.


New York:

While most states offer a free, full-time online learning program, New York does not currently do so. However, paid online options are available. 


North Carolina:

In North Carolina, middle school and high school students may enroll full-time or part-time in North Carolina Virtual Public School. Students not enrolled in public schools may be required to pay tuition. Other free, full-time online learning options are also available, such as North Carolina Virtual Academy


North Dakota:

While there is not currently a free full-time option for North Dakota students, elementary through high school students may enroll in courses through the North Dakota Center for Distance Education for a fee. Other providers may be available as well.



Students in elementary through high school grades may enroll full-time or part-time in courses through Northwest Ohio Virtual Academy at no cost, but they must register through a school district. Other free, full-time online learning options are also available, such as Ohio Virtual Academy and Ohio Connections Academy. You can also check out: Ohio e-School Families and Friends Coalition



Oklahoma offers several free, full-time online learning options for students, such as Oregon Virtual Academy and Oregon Connections Academy. Remember, virtual school is different and it can feel like “drinking from a fire hose” at first. But, for some families, it becomes the perfect fit. Find out more about all of Oklahoma’s virtual learning options here



Oregon offers several free, full-time online learning options for students, like Oregon Connections Academy and Oregon Virtual Academy. For students in rural areas, the Oregon Digital Learning Academy provides part-time supplemental courses online, at no charge to students. You can also check out: Oregon Virtual Public School Alliance



Pennsylvania offers several free, full-time online learning options for students, such as PA Virtual Charter School, Reach Cyber Charter School, and Insight PA Cyber Charter School.


Rhode Island:

In some Rhode Island districts, students in grades 3-12 can enroll in online courses. But, they must register through their local school district. Contact your local public school for more information on tuition and enrollment.


South Carolina:

South Carolina offers several free, full-time online learning options for students, like South Carolina Virtual Charter School, and South Carolina Connections Academy.  In addition, public, private, and homeschooled students in grades 7-12 in South Carolina can enroll in tuition-free online classes through Virtual SC. VirtualSC recommends taking a maximum of four classes at a time, and does not award diplomas.


South Dakota:

South Dakota families can free, online learning courses through Black Hills Online Learning Community, which partners with K12 and local school districts. Registration is only open at certain times of the year, however.  In addition, the South Dakota Virtual School, in conjunction with the state Department of Education, offers a list of approved providers for part-time courses. Fees may apply.



Tennessee offers several free, full-time online learning options for students, like Tennessee Virtual Academy and Tennessee Connections Academy



Texas offers several free, full-time online learning options for students, including tuition-free online schooling through the Texas Virtual School Network’s Online Schools. Also, students may find part-time options through the Texas Virtual School Network.



All Utah students, grades K-12, can enroll full- or part-time in online courses through Utah Online School. All courses are tuition-free. Other free online learning options are also available, such as Utah Connections Academy and Utah Virtual Academy. Moreover, Utah’s My Tech High partners with public schools to offer a full-time, personalized, distance education program for students ages 5 to 18. Parents, educators, and community members can find education-related data about all public schools, including online public schools, at Utah State Board of Education’s Data Gateway.



While Vermont does not yet offer a free, full-time online learning option, all students can take part-time courses through Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative. A variety of factors determine whether the school or parent will pay tuition. For more information, contact your local public school.



Virginia offers students the option of free, full-time online learning, such as through Virginia Virtual Academy. For part-time classes, students in middle and high school can take online classes through Virtual Virginia. Tuition is covered by the public or private school in which the student is enrolled, or the parents if the student is homeschooled. Find out more about Virginia Virtual Academy here and here



Washington offers several free, full-time online learning options for students, like the Insight School of Washington and Washington Connections Academy. The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has compiled a list of districts with online learning options, some of which may offer free courses. While you and your child may experience a learning curve with online learning, for many families it becomes the perfect fit. In addition, you can check out: Digital Public School Alliance – WA


West Virginia:

West Virginia does not offer free, full-time online schools. However, the West Virginia Virtual School offers part-time online courses. Students who do not have access to courses in their home school can take courses for free, but fees apply for summer online courses, and in some other cases. 



In Wisconsin, students can access several free, full-time online school programs. These include Wisconsin Connections Academy and Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin. For part-time classes, middle-school and high-school students in Wisconsin can enroll in online classes through Wisconsin Virtual School, for a fee. Students at public and private schools should enroll through their schools; homeschooled students can enroll directly.



Wyoming offers several free, full-time online learning options for students, like Wyoming Virtual Academy and Wyoming Connections Academy. Additionally, paid part-time options are available through a variety of other providers. 


Shareable Facts about Online School

Virtual Learning Infographic Red&Yellow
Sources: The School Choice Roadmap, by Andrew Campanella; Snapshot 2020, by the Digital Learning Collaborative.

Click here to download and share the graphic of our guide to online school.

Myths about Online School

Because online school programs aren’t as well-known as traditional school programs, there are some common misconceptions about them. For instance, here are two myths about K-12 online schools, along with answers from online school experts.


Myth 1: Online school would make it too hard for my child to have friends.

Suzanne Sloan, head of school at Virginia Virtual Academy (VAVA) shared a perspective on this. “One of the myths of virtual learning is that students are at home learning and they don’t get a chance to socialize and they don’t get a chance to be with other people,” she said. “Our families will tell you that it is the polar opposite. Because they have the ability to be flexible with their scheduling, they actually have more opportunities to be with other students. One of the ways they do this is through service projects, which help their individual communities.” 


Myth 2: Online school is less academically rigorous than traditional schooling.

We talked with another online school leader who had this to share about the rigor of online learning: “Our coursework is very challenging,” says Bryan Klochack, Principal at Michigan Connections Academy. “When we provide surveys to our parents about their happiness with our curriculum and whether it’s more or less challenging than their previous experience, it’s well into the high percentage of numbers that [say] it’s more challenging.”

He continued, “One of the things that we continue to fight over the years is that when you take a course online, people think of it as a credit recovery course that is not very challenging. As a full-time virtual option, that’s not who we are. We’re not a credit recovery program. We award diplomas. We’re expected to meet the same expectations every traditional brick and mortar district has for students to earn credits and their diploma, so it is very challenging, it is rigorous.”


Stories from Online School

If you’d like to hear more firsthand advice about online school, check out these interviews and stories from our archives: 



Why one family tried online school and hasn’t stopped yet





At this online school, each student designs a volunteer project



GOAL Academy-students-hold-school-choice-week-signs


At this blended model school, students get prom AND online classes 





Here’s what you should consider before switching to online school 




The information in this guide to online school is designed to help families who are considering online schooling in their decision-making process. Our mission is to provide families with the information they need about all the school options available – traditional public, public charter, public magnet, private, online, and at home – so they can choose the right fit for their child. For more guides about choosing other types of schools, click here.

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