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Most students are expected back in classrooms this fall, but the number of students learning via computer will likely remain well above pre-pandemic levels.

There will be at least 18 new, full-time virtual school options available to Michigan students this coming school year, most operated by traditional school districts that also will offer in-person instruction. The total number of full-time, online schools in Michigan is at least 90, according to research by Chalkbeat Detroit and data from Michigan Department of Education.

Many Michigan families and educators experienced virtual learning for the first time last school year. That exposure — combined with ongoing COVID concerns — is likely to shape virtual learning in Michigan this fall and for years to come, experts say.

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The growth in virtual school options comes while questions remain about online education, from inequities in access to poor academic results. Students — disproportionately people from low-income families — have historically struggled in online schools. Some observers worry, too, that expanding online learning will boost profits for charter school companies.

Nonetheless, Michigan’s virtual learning landscape is changing rapidly.

Some of those changes are tied to the pandemic: educators are calling for changes to the rules governing emergency remote learning in the event of a COVID outbreak.

Other changes could be with Michigan for much longer.

The pandemic gave educators a crash course in virtual learning tools that are valuable even when students are learning mostly in person, said Sarayhu Bethamcherla, 17, a senior at Troy High School and president of the Michigan Association of Student Councils, who is returning to in-person learning for her senior year.

“I think virtual learning is sustainable. So many formats they used can carry over this next year, and it will be even more beneficial to us,” she said.

At least 18 new full-time virtual schools have opened since the start of the pandemic, aiming to serve COVID-wary parents and families who discovered that they prefer online classes.

“This coming fall will be the first opportunity since the pandemic began where we can really see what virtual learning might look like post-pandemic,” said Michael Barbour, a professor at Touro University California who studies virtual instruction

During the pandemic, many districts switched several times between in-person and virtual instruction. The difference between the two was often minimal, with teachers doing the same things on a video conference that they would have done in a classroom.

This fall, some districts are taking a different approach, opening virtual schools with staff and instructional methods focused exclusively on online learning.

“They’re actually planning online learning, whereas over the last year and a half we were just putting Band-Aids on things,” Barbour said.

Like last year, it appears COVID outbreaks may force some students to spend at least some time learning online.