Virtual schools see continued growth beyond pandemic reasons
MOSINEE, Wis. (WSAW) - Virtual schools around north-central Wisconsin are hitting their enrollment caps and continuing to steadily grow.
While the continuing COVID-19 pandemic may be a reason for some families to sign up for virtual schools like Rural Virtual Academy, its administrator Charles Heckel said they are hearing that the experience of last year opened families’ eyes to the stability and flexibility it can offer.
“Pre-pandemic, we used to have to educate parents more about what virtual learning was about,” Heckel said. “But during the pandemic, really, most families had an opportunity to experience it. And regardless of the quality of education that their children received from their local school districts primarily, many families did reap the additional benefits of realizing being able to spend more time with their kids.”
RVA had to turn away about half of the students who signed up as the pandemic hit hard.
“During the pandemic we had over 3,000 students wanting to get into the RVA, but because of our enrollment caps, we weren’t able to take them all.”
The caps two years ago, for RVA’s 2019-20 school year, the enrollment cap was set to 1,500 students. This year, it was increased to 1,800. Wednesday, the governance board approved another increase capping it at 2,100 for the 2022-23 school year.
“We hire on average between 20-30 new employees every year with that growth.”
With a statewide teacher shortage even before the pandemic, hiring could be difficult, but Heckel said the remote work means they can pool applicants from around the state.
“We’re at an advantage because geography doesn’t play a role. If we hire a teacher, they don’t have to move, you know, pick up and move necessarily.”
RVA technically is part of the Medford School District, but it partners with 57 school districts as their virtual school option. About 49% of students in RVA come from those partner districts, which allows students to play sports and do school activities within their home district. The other 51% enter the school through the school choice program.
The intentionally virtual school design has sheltered RVA and other virtual schools from some of the issues traditional schools statewide have felt this school year. For example, they are not impacted by the current shortage in substitute teachers because Heckel said they rarely need to use them. Teachers can record their lessons if they need to be out for a doctor’s appointment or a full day and they do not need to quarantine for COVID because they are already separated from their students. The only time they hire substitute teachers is for long-term needs like a leave of absence.
They have not seen the student gaps in education or social-emotional development either. Heckel said they actually saw academic scores actually increase last year, and while they had to cancel some of their in-person student activities last year, those activities are back on, providing many opportunities for in-person interaction between students and teachers.
Heckel noted the enrollment cap, of course, limits their ability to accept students wanting to get in. So, he advised that those who are considering them or other virtual schools as an option should apply as soon as they know what they want to do after open enrollment starts in February.
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