More Pa. parents eyeing cyber charters amid COVID-19

Ethan Moore, 14, who has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, looks up an answer in his Earth Science book during his Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School class at his home in Wrightsville, Wednesday, April 6, 2016. Moore has done well in his cyber classes since being pulled from public school because the standardized testing was overwhelming for him. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Cyber charters across the state are seeing an uptick in inquiries from parents for fall enrollment this year following a three-month stint of virtual learning at traditional districts to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

It's too soon to tell whether those numbers will translate into enrollment, said Richard Jensen, CEO of Montgomery County-based Agora Cyber Charter School — one of the largest in the state, with 5,600 students enrolled.

But interest has spiked in the past month as parents are exploring their options, he said.

The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, which represents 12 of the 14 cyber charters in the state, reported that most of those schools saw an increase in families wanting more information this March.

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It was March 13 that schools statewide first shut down because of the pandemic.

Sara Gray Bradley answers a question for her son,  Jacob Gray, 5, a kindergartener, while the family works at their East Manchester Township home Monday, April 27, 2020. Sara is trying to work from home for her job in the midst of helping the kids. Bill Kalina photo

Inquiries have been spiking in the last few months for Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, and CEO Brian Hayden said he usually doesn't see that kind of interest until after July 4.

The Beaver County-based charter — which, in the 2018-19 school year, was the largest cyber in the state with at 10,110 students — saw inquiries up 68% compared to the the same period in 2019, he said.

"This is typically a slow time for us," he said, noting that he can't even attribute it to internal efforts, as there's been no increase in advertising or other recruitment efforts.

Jensen said the same can be said for Agora. However, enrollment has remained relatively steady since last year, with 220 enrollments between March and June, compared to 305 enrollments in the same period this year.

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That school had 150 York County students enrolled this year, and seven more have enrolled so far for the 2020-21 school year.

But Jensen said Agora typically sees more enrollments in August.

The reason for more inquiries, however, is likely because of the pandemic, he said. Parents who are calling are asking about learning models, which can be very different from traditional districts.

Hayden said the two main things he's seen parents identify in why they are looking at cybers is a concern for safety and a frustration at their district's education during the shutdown.

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"They want more of a regular classroom experience," he said.

The past three months has been unprecedented — leaving many public school districts scrambling to address a digital divide, age-appropriate virtual lessons and the right amount of work.

A majority of districts have had a mostly asynchronous model, in which students work independently on their own time, whereas Agora, for example, is primarily delivering live lessons with virtual classroom participation.

Experts have questioned the effectiveness of learning during the pandemic without face-to-face interactions, and most teachers agree it's no substitute for a traditional model.

Some residents also fear bringing students back to school for safety reasons — especially those with increased health risks — while others decry a world where they would be limited by wearing masks.

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Between the 12 cyber charters represented by the coalition, there were 1,600 students enrolled between March 13 and mid-April, said Jess Hickernell, the coalition's director of public affairs and policy.

Some school officials noted they had significant increases while others said what they saw was normal for that time period, she said. 

Depending on how many students stay on, that could pose a problem for public school districts with budgets already stretched thin paying charter school tuition, which has been increasing steadily each year.

Just this year, York City budgeted $2.5 million more for charter tuition.

About 75% of Jensen's enrollees have said that they are interested in continuing, though total enrollment has been down compared to this time last year.

Though most districts are preparing to welcome student back in person, they also have contingencies for hybrid or virtual models to assist with social distancing or a protect students in case of an uptick in COVID-19 cases.

Some districts, including West York Area and Southern York County, have even revamped their online learning models into a full district cyber school option.