Originally published in The Cap Times - July 27, 2021.
After a surge in virtual school enrollment in the 2020-21 school year, school districts and virtual charters are prepared for some of the demand to continue.
Families flocked to online schools that had experience in teaching virtually ahead of one of the most tumultuous years in education in recent memory, as districts around the country navigated COVID-19 safety protocols.
Many districts remained online-only for a large portion of the 2020-21 school year. Now, districts are planning to be almost entirely back in-person for the 2021-22 school year, but are creating their own virtual opportunities for students who prefer it.
Together with those already-existing online schools, that gives families like Cally Ehle’s plenty of options. Ehle and her husband moved their two daughters, now ages 10 and 12, to the Wisconsin Connections Academy last school year after struggling with the Stoughton Area School District’s virtual learning program in spring 2020 when the pandemic initially hit.
Their daughters found success even as the transition was a bit chaotic.
“My older daughter actually came up to me one day and she said, ‘Mom, I love this school, I don't feel stupid anymore,’” Ehle said. “My husband and I were like, ‘We really need to do this at least through junior high and revisit it before high school starts.’”
WCA and the Wisconsin Virtual Academy are among the schools with years of experience providing virtual instruction to students. Both are technically part of a school district — Appleton and McFarland, respectively — but can accept students from around the state through the open enrollment process.
Enrollment numbers are showing there is still an interest in this approach to learning, even if it’s not quite as high as last year.
“We approached 4,100 students last year, that is double 2019,” said Sara Cutler, who joined WVA as the head of schools this spring. “We’re not going to get that high this year.”
Cutler said families enroll in WVA for a variety of reasons — “those 4,100 kids had 4,100 reasons to come to virtual education” — but that she will be watching the numbers closely in August as school districts make their plans and safety protocols for fall more clear.
WCA principal Michelle Mueller said she did not know what to expect going into this summer.
“This year our numbers are really more back to what a normal year would be,” she said. “I don't know what to expect with August because as you've seen in the news, there is more and more coming out with what different school districts are doing, so I don't know what August is going to bring, but July has definitely been more of a normal expectation.”
Many school districts, meanwhile, are trying to provide their own in-house option to meet the needs of students and ensure they don’t lose enrollment because of the demand for virtual instruction.
The Madison Metropolitan School District, for example, is in the midst of enrollment for its Madison Promise Academy for students in grades 6-12. In the Verona Area School District, 33 students enrolled in the new district-offered virtual learning program, spokesperson Rachelle Belli wrote in an email to the Cap Times.
Ehle issued a word of caution to parents considering enrolling a child in virtual education to be prepared for the demands of schooling from home.
“Some parents go in with the idea of, you put the kid in front of a computer and there you go, the kid will take care of it,” she said. “It is much more intensive for the parents, it's much more involved with parents; you do have to be involved and each kid is different.”
To learn more about Wisconsin Virtual Academy, visit wiva.k12.com.