Kathy Hobbs loves her kids’ elementary school in the West Ada School District.
But they won’t be going back to it this fall.
Hobbs decided to enroll her two children in the Idaho Home Learning Academy through the Oneida School District for the first time this year, because of what she calls a “void of uncertainty” about how the school year will play out in West Ada.
She’s not alone.
Parents across the country are flocking to virtual schools amid COVID-19 uncertainty, Chalkbeat reports, and Idaho schools are reporting a similar uptick in interest.
Virtual charter schools and the Idaho Digital Learning Alliance told the State Board of Education last week that enrollment is up during COVID-19 — and they’re feeling the growing pains.
“Parents have shared with us that they are trying to seek out the best school option for their student/family given the circumstances,” Katie Allison, director of iSucceed Virtual High School, said in an email. “Much of that decisionmaking seems to be centered around safety, schedule and continuity of instruction throughout the year.”
Allison doesn’t have final fall enrollment numbers yet, but she says iSucceed has seen a bigger increase in students than in years past. She told the State Board that Idaho’s eight other virtual charters are also seeing a bump, but the extent of that increase varies.
IDLA, a statewide online learning platform, had 12,000 students enrolled two weeks ago, compared to 3,000 during the same week the previous year. The program is set to surpass its entire enrollment for 2019-20 any day now, Director of District Programs Will Goodman said.
Terri Sorensen, executive director of education in the Oneida district, says its Idaho Home Learning Academy has seen three times the growth it anticipated this year.
Virtual charters are concerned the enrollment bump is not sustainable. Students might try out virtual charters for the next few months, then go back to their old schools as the pandemic abates — but the charters will still be on the hook for year-long teaching contracts even if they lose students and the corresponding funding.
“Like our traditional counterparts, we are preparing for multiple scenarios for the year but in a different way,” Allison said. “We understand that this year is volatile for all of us and are more than willing to do what we need to during this unique situation.”
IDLA is trying to hire enough teachers to accommodate growing enrollment, staff told the State Board. Some of IDLA’s part-time instructors are teaching twice their typical class load. Other part-time teachers now have children at home and have had to dial back their hours.
Typically IDLA hires new teachers during the spring, Goodman said. This year, that hiring process has been continuous.
“Every Friday for as long back as I can remember we’ve had interviews and hirings. It seems to be what we’ve done this summer,” Goodman said.
IDLA staff says they’re still able to hire “good quality applicants” looking for online work. But director Cheryl Charlton said training those new teachers with a high-quality online program takes time. IDLA has partnered with Boise State University’s teacher education program to try and expand that teacher pool and has also reached out to the University of Idaho and Idaho State University, Charlton said.
“We will do everything it takes every day to continue onboarding teachers,” she told the State Board. “But that teacher availability is a real factor.”
Hobbs, the West Ada parent, had toyed with the idea of homeschooling or enrolling her children in a virtual school before the pandemic hit. She stays home during the day and would be around to supervise, but was concerned that she’s “not one of those type-A personalities, with multi-to-do-lists.”
This year seemed like the year to make that leap. She felt the online schools were more transparent than the process to enroll in West Ada’s online school option. And she appreciates the flexibility that her kids can learn on their own schedules.
“At the rate everything is going with the year we’re all going to be behind anyway, so why not try something new,” Hobbs said. “Maybe we’ll stumble on something that gives us that little nudge to bet back on track, or maybe even ahead.”