Sarah Vanderplate has three older children - , Colson, 9 (going into fourth grade), Connor, 7 (going into second grade) and Emma, 11 (going into sixth grade) who are enrolled in Commonwealth Charter Academy for the fall. August 6, 2020 Sean Simmers | firstname.lastname@example.org
Coronavirus spurs enrollment explosion for Pa. cyberschools
“Compared to prior years, interest this year is astronomical."
By Jan Murphy/PennLive
To say interest in K-12 cyber education for this fall is exploding is clearly an understatement.
PA Cyber, a cyber charter school based in Beaver County, is receiving 1,000 inquiries about its programs each week. The school already has reached its 11,677-student limit – 2,000 more students than it usually has enrolled at the start of school – and has thousands of names on a waiting list.
Over on the other side of the state, PA Virtual Charter School in Montgomery County has implemented a lottery system for the first time in its 20-year history. The number of enrollments it had at the end of July is three times the number it had at the same time last year.
Here, in the midstate, at the Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Charter Academy, officials struggle to keep up with the sixfold increase in the number of inquiries they are receiving. Tim Eller, the school’s senior vice president of outreach and government relations, said the school began putting enrollment applications received after July 31 on a waiting list and absolutely expects its enrollment to surpass last year’s 11,200 students.
“Compared to prior years, interest this year is astronomical,” Eller said.
Even at the Capital Area Online Learning Association, a cyber program administered by the Capital Area Intermediate Unit, interest in its online offerings is seeing unprecedented growth. It is adding staff to accommodate the increased enrollment it is seeing. The association partners with over 140 school districts and educational programs in the state and 11 intermediate units to provide a cyber education program.
All of these online schools cite the COVID-19 pandemic and related health and safety concerns as the biggest reason behind the sudden surge in interest in having students go to school online instead of in a building populated by hundreds, if not thousands, of other students and adults.
The state House Education Committee last week heard from cyberschool administrators about how they are responding to the demand for a public school option that up until last spring had its doubters that it was a viable educational alternative. One of them is Gov. Tom Wolf.
But cyberschool advocates hope the pandemic has altered its critics’ views.
Brian Hayden, CEO of PA Cyber, said in his written testimony to the House committee, COVID-19 has managed to accomplish something that parents, students, policymakers and taxpayers have thus far been unable to do.
The pandemic has forced “traditional education to finally embrace the digital tools they have resisted for the past 20 years,” Hayden said.
Michelle Lentz’s two sons – Ricky (entering 8th grade) and Mason (entering kindergarten) are enrolled in Commonwealth Charter Academy for the fall. Sean Simmers/PennLive
Behind the super cyber interest
Last year, the state’s 14 cyber charter schools enrolled about 35,000 students, Hayden told PennLive in an interview last week. This year, given the level of interest, that figure will be higher.
If that number doubled, Sean Sampson, business manager at Titusville Area School District, told House Education Committee members last week it is projected that would result in a $600 million hit to school districts’ budgets. Districts have to pay the tuition bills for students who live in their district but choose to attend a charter or cyber charter school. But given that most cyber charters are at or nearing their enrollment limits, he expressed doubt that the combined bills to districts would reach that figure.
Still, he said, “It is a concern dealing with those increases within a budget we already have a lot of challenges with.”
The biggest reason parents told cyber charter school officials they were seeking an online option for their children, beyond the obvious health concerns, is the expectation for them to wear a mask all day at school to prevent the coronavirus’ spread.
“The second reason is frustration that they have with their traditional school districts and the continuity of education provided from mid-March through the rest of the school year,” Hayden said. “They weren’t satisfied with that in many cases so if the kids are not going to be back in school every day, they are looking to us for an alternative.”
In addition, Eller said parents have been frustrated by the scaffolding plan that some districts have adopted with some students attending a couple days a week in person and online on other days while the rest are in school.
“It creates a lot of disruption for the students and a lot of parents have raised concern about the lack of consistency for their child,” Eller said.
For Sarah Vanderplate, that is part of the reason she and her husband Jarred decided to enroll their school-age children in Commonwealth Charter Academy, or CCA as it is advertised, this year.
The mother of five from Washington Borough, Lancaster County, had only good things to say about Central Manor Elementary School in Penn Manor School District in Lancaster County, where her soon-to-be second-grader Connor and incoming fourth-grader Colson attended last year.
But that being said, “I feel the schools are kind of in a lose-lose situation. They are trying to come up with the best plan based on the mandates but I really think it’s ever-changing,” she said.
“I have no doubt Central Manor is going to do a top-notch job with the cards they’re dealt but I feel like for my kids, we need to have a consistent day and school that’s not dependent or changed by what the government is saying,” Vanderlplate said.
Vanderplate, a former educator, said she was nervous about the newness of the elementary virtual program Penn Manor is offering this fall. Besides, she said they were looking to enroll their 11-year-old daughter Emma, a competitive gymnast, in CCA this year anyway.
She homeschooled Emma the last two years because of her daughter’s intense gymnastics schedule. But her gymnastic friends who were enrolled in CCA spoke highly of the school and Vanderplate said she liked the idea of having a teacher provide the lessons whereas in homeschooling, she had to do that.
“I think any option has its pros and cons so parents are just in this hard situation of weighing out the pros and cons for each one and trying to pick out the best one for their family,” Vanderplate said.
Michelle Lentz of Duncannon said she and her husband Rick also decided to give CCA a try this year for their two kids.
The Susquenita School District bus driver said their soon-to-be eighth-grade son Ricky is autistic. She said the idea of him wearing a mask all day was a concern. She also cited the anxiety he felt in moving from in-person classes to online school last spring, and the potential of having to do it again if an COVID-19 outbreak occurs at his school this fall.
Besides that, she said Ricky was falling behind and she and her husband felt the charter school would be able to have teachers more readily available to provide the support he needs to get his learning back on track. Weighing all those factors, she enrolled Ricky in CCA as well as their son Mason, who will enter kindergarten.
“I know a lot of parents have no choice but to send their kids to school,” Lentz said. “But my husband and I agreed this was the best choice for us at this point. We’ll see how the cyberschool works for our family.”
Other parents are opting to enroll their children in district cyber programs offered in partnership with the Capital Area Online Learning Academy. The academy offers over 400 courses to students in grades K-12 through a mix of live teaching, where the class meets with a teacher at a certain time, and a less structured model that provides more self-paced learning that students can do at a time that suits them. Similar instructional models are used at other cyber charter schools.
Districts that partner with CAOLA, as the IU’s academy is called, prefer parents choose this online option because the average price to school districts for a full-time student in this program is significantly less than when a student withdraws from a district school to attend a cyber charter school.
Hayden, PA Cyber’s CEO, gets agitated when that notion gets floated that cyber charters are a budget buster for districts.
“They say it doesn’t cost that much to educate a kid in a cyber environment,” Hayden said. “But now all these superintendents and school boards are going to state and federal governments demanding billions of dollars nationally to try to do remote learning because apparently, they can’t do it for the $4,500 or whatever the IU says it costs. I don’t know whether to laugh about that or get angry.”
The Commonwealth Charter Academy has seen a surge of interest from families leery of returning to brick-and-mortar schools due to the coronavirus pandemic, school officials say. They project to surpass the academy’s enrollment of 11,000 last year.
Seeing silver linings
Despite the increased interest in enrollment their schools are experiencing, cyber charter administrators said they will only enroll the number of students they can appropriately serve. They only have a limited amount of laptops, printers, and supplies that students need and technical staff to support it. Beyond that, they want to keep the workload manageable for teachers.
“Similar to a traditional school, where you can’t stuff 60 kids into a classroom and expect them to learn. We can’t stuff 60 kids in a virtual classroom and expect them to learn,” Hayden told lawmakers during last week’s hearing.
Hiring more staff to accommodate a higher enrollment is not something they can often do quickly, especially if the educators they are bringing on board are new to the world of cyber education, said Doug Wessels, PA Virtual’s director of public affairs and accountability.
“For any teacher, or administrator for that matter, no matter how long they’ve been in their career, once they switch over to an all online environment, it’s like their first year all over again,” Wessels said.
Cyberschool officials hope that the experience district teachers and administrators went through in the spring when schools closed and they were thrust into a remote teaching environment helped to foster an appreciation for cyber education.
While the statewide public education organizations rebuffed the cyber charter community’s offers to assist districts in making that springtime switch, cyber school operators say teachers and principals individually did reach out. They say they asked for help with curriculum ideas, teaching strategies, and encouraging parents to keep kids on task with their school work.
“That was a big challenge to a lot of schools because it was easier for administrators and principals and teachers to control the environment in their buildings,” Wessels said. “But it’s really a challenge when you consider many of our students might not live in the safest environment or might not live in the most supportive environment. Or there’s a lot of fear and anxiety certainly surrounding the coronavirus but also there’s financial insecurities and economic hardships and maybe food insecurities. If students don’t feel safe and supported, they certainly aren’t learning that day.”
Most of all, the cyberschool community is hopeful school districts will come around to seeing them as partners.
Cyberschools recognize cyber education doesn’t work for all students, said CCA’s Eller. Further, Wessels said it’s common for students to enroll in PA Virtual for a few years and then they go back to their district school for athletics, due to a change in family situations, or a multitude of other reasons.
“We see that kind of transitioning happening so much,” Wessels said. “I think it’s really incumbent on us as educational leaders to work together so that when students transition, they don’t miss a day of education.”
What’s more, Eller said, “We want to help those districts that do want to do a cyber program and the families who do want to stay in their district. We want to help those districts have a robust cyber program.”
Cyber education provides an opportunity to individualize education and diversify it to make it more engaging for students, they said. Now that COVID-19 has forced more educators into this virtual space, Wessels said it will help them see those opportunities and lead to an explosion of best practices in how to reach, support and engage students.
He added: “It’s really going to make the whole education sector better for students.”
So while parents may see cyber schools as a better option right now due to the pandemic, cyber charter administrators hope it produces a long-term benefit of having their schools become more broadly accepted as having a place in the state’s educational landscape.
“Cyberschools work,” Hayden told lawmakers. “Public, private, parochial post-secondary schools all used the time between March and the end of the school year to pass students, to promote students and to graduate students. So hopefully there’s no longer going to be a discussion about the validity of cyber education in 2020.”
PennLive and The Patriot-News are partners with PA Post.