It’s been a tough year for kids and teens—college kids abruptly sent packing; seniors closing out high school without proms; and most students spending their days in front of a computer to learn afar from schools designed for in-person study. With winter coming, many students are finding themselves fully remote for the foreseeable future.

The pandemic has made families rethink how to educate their kids moving forward. In private conversations and public chat groups, parents have been asking about homeschooling, learning pods, and online learning options offered by institutions experienced in teaching kids at a distance.

“There’s been an uptick in interest in online learning to be sure,” says online education expert and virtual school pioneer, Bruce Friend. “It’s fair to say there’s an interest in those types of programs, particularly as more parents think if I have to homeschool, maybe this is a better solution.”

Curious? Here’s what you need to know.

What constitutes an online education?
Virtual learning takes several forms. In fully online schools, coursework, lessons, and teacher interactions are all done remotely. Blended or hybrid programs offer a bit of both—in-person classes augmented by digital studies (or the other way around, depending). Public online schools, which are free, directly mirror each state’s curriculum and requirements (i.e. assessments, progress reports, attendance, etc.). State-supported charter schools, which maintain a self-determined course of study, may or may not charge a fee depending on where the student resides. Online private schools, like their real world counterparts, charge tuition but are free from any state mandates, which is why it’s important to make sure they’re accredited, as you would with a traditional private school.

According to Emily Hendershot, Assistant Director of Admissions for Stanford Online High School, US schools are accredited by regional accrediting organizations, and are able to transfer academic credits and recognize each other’s high school diplomas nationally and internationally. “We have students from 48 states and 30 countries attending Stanford OHS, and a good number from New Jersey specifically,” she says.

Then there are also supplemental classes, which allow students to access online courses in place of or in addition to what their brick-and-mortar schools offer (for example, alternate languages and unavailable AP classes).

How does it work?
Learning can be asynchronous or synchronous. The former allows students to set their own self-guided pace, the latter closely resembles a traditional classroom with students learning at the same time.

“A good online program offers components of both synchronous and asynchronous learning, and a good online class has elements of both,” says Friend. Especially if it enables students to truly work at their own unique pace.

Would-be online learners will find some combination of live-streamed and recorded instruction; group chats, discussions, and video conferencing; audio files, PowerPoints, emails; virtual one-on-one “face time” with teachers; self-paced online lessons and assessments; offline activities using provided books and materials; and more. There are a lot of tools in the virtual toolbox.

So is this considered homeschooling (they are home, after all)?
Not exactly. With traditional homeschooling, the parent or chosen educator actively teaches the chosen curriculum. Online learning requires an in-home learning coach, typically a parent or guardian, to provide academic and logistical support as necessary (older kids need less hand-holding), but the curriculum and educating is provided by the online school. The line does get a bit fuzzy, as some homeschoolers do take online classes, especially advanced and specialized classes to round out their home curriculum. But that’s really the beauty of online learning—it offers the opportunity to create a personalized academic experience.

What are the pros and cons of online learning?
Lack of hands-on learning is often cited as a potential negative, but online simulations and in-home experiments can satisfy STEM requirements (there’s even a company called Hands-On Labs that delivers online lessons and physical lab kits). What about socialization? Yes, in-person hang outs are probably best. But have you met your kids? They are deeply social in the virtual space. Not to mention, well set-up schools factor in socializing, says Friend, by promoting project-based work, fostering real-time discussions, creating opportunities to come together, and building a spirit of community. Extracurricular activities can also scratch the in-person connection kids crave.

The biggest pro can also be the greatest con, however. Online schools offer a chance to rethink and energize education—if done right, which isn’t always the case.

“If it’s nothing more than going online to be told to reach chapter 1-5…that’s, that’s boring in a traditional classroom, why would you do that online,” says Friend? When selecting an online program, make sure it offers a high level of engagement along with a stellar curriculum.

Who attends online school?
Now? Possibly everyone you know. But pre-COVID, it appealed to students ranging from those with unpredictable schedules (like professional actors) to those with special learning needs, particularly the exceptionally bright but bored.

“Online schools offer advanced learners many resources a brick-and-mortar school wouldn’t be able to: more rigorous academics, access to a wider range of courses and subjects, and a more diverse population of students and instructors. Online schools can also offer a more flexible learning schedule, regardless of whether they offer self-paced courses or live, real-time courses like our school,” says Hendershot.

And some simply found that online learning suited them. Unenthused by her local school, the adolescent daughter of South Orange-based Christel Hyden opted instead for self-guided study online at Indiana University High School, which offered rigor and the chance to take college level classes.

“We also wanted something that wasn’t home schooling—I’m not planning to be the teacher,” says Hyden. “We’ve had our ups and downs with it, but the flexibility and independence and sense of responsibility have been really valuable. I think at 15 she’s also developing time management and other skills I didn’t start working on until college. She often doesn’t even start her schoolwork until close to 4, but as long as she gets it done and the grades are there then I’m glad she’s learning what works best for her,” she says.

Is virtual learning a good fit for your family?
Is there an adult who can commit to serving as a learning coach? That’s number one. Kids who are independent and responsible, as well as curious and active learners take to online school well, especially if they’ve felt suffocated by the rigid structure of traditional schools. And you may be surprised by the benefits accrued by autonomy. Not only does Hyden’s daughter sleep more soundly, there are zero mom-daughter conflicts.

“She doesn’t feel like she has to push back against me in order to flex that muscle. Plus she feels respected that we’re even letting her do something so non-traditional,” she says.

What if we want to stick with our local school online?
You won’t be alone. “The vast majority will be looking toward their local schools,” says Friend. For one, despite increased interest, many established online schools were already at capacity before COVID-19 struck. And unless your local district already had a template for online education, they were likely unprepared to ramp up from brick-and-mortar—so don’t be too quick to judge. At least not quite yet.

According to Friend,  a lot of traditional school districts have really taken time this summer to plan for a successful 2020-2021 school year.  “Teachers will be better prepared, students will be better prepared, and parents will be better prepared to support their students,” he says.

No matter what you decide, virtual education is here to stay.