Thousands of Utah kids have changed schools during COVID-19, while ‘school choice’ left others out

Will kids who transferred return to neighborhood schools next fall, and what happens if they don’t?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Molly Pearce with her children, Margaret, Kit, Peter, Oliver and Nellie. They attend four different schools.

Editor’s note • Through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting in-depth on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education.

When the Salt Lake City School District announced all classes would be online this fall, Molly Pearce immediately knew she had to literally map out another option.

Helping her four school-age children learn at home last spring, after Utah’s schools closed abruptly to slow the spread of COVID-19, was “disastrous,” she said.

“Computers crashing and the websites not working, passwords not working … My legs hurt by the end of the day from running from computer to computer,” Pearce said. “And the stress level of myself and all of my children and my husband, who has been working from home, was incredibly high.”

So, the Pearce family took advantage of school choice. Also called “open enrollment,” it’s an option that has been available in Utah for nearly 30 years but has faced its biggest test with the coronavirus pandemic. For the most part, it has done what it was designed to: allow parents to find a school that best meets their children’s needs.

Yet the pandemic has exposed some flaws in the program — including inequities and barriers that restrict choices for some families — and its frequent use may cause more harm than good.

For now, Pearce has five school-age kids attending four different schools and a part-time job as their taxi driver, with plenty of company on the roads. With Salt Lake City moving classes entirely online for the first half of the school year, and others offering in-person classes or experimenting with hybrid models, parents have shuffled their children around in greater numbers than ever before.

Open enrollment “obviously wasn’t set up for a pandemic,” said Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah Board of Education, “but it actually proved useful.”

What does school choice mean?

Legislators didn’t have anything like the pandemic in mind when they narrowly passed school choice into state law in 1992.

The law dissolved district borders and, with subsequent amendments, has theoretically given parents their pick of any public school in the state, as long as they are willing to drive their child there.

The intent was two-pronged. It would keep wealth more evenly distributed by not forcing parents to move to send their kids to the schools they prefer. In addition, it would create a free market among schools, prodding them to innovate and compete for students and the federal dollars that follow them.

The free-market model has worked to an extent this school year. Salt Lake City schools hemorrhaged students after it became the only district in the state to opt for an online-only model. Its board has since reversed course and last week started a staggered return schedule for in-person classes, but that was after 1,230 kids transferred out and it saw a decrease of 8.15% in its student population.

Schools offering in-person learning in and around Salt Lake City, meanwhile, have seen an uptick in out-of-district transfers.

Most schools closest to the district’s borders have reached their building capacity. That prohibits those schools from accepting more students, even though some — such as Evergreen Junior High in the Canyon Rim area — have waiting lists of up to 60 kids for the remainder of this school year. Schools farther away, meanwhile, have seats to spare.

That’s a sore point for parents. Because of school choice, they expected to be able to send their kids to schools that, despite being in other districts, were reasonably nearby. For many, including Pearce, that hasn’t been the case.

Some told The Salt Lake Tribune that they or families they know became so frustrated with the waitlist system this fall that they have rented an apartment within the boundaries of coveted schools, so the schools have to enroll their children.

Families have done that in the past, particularly for student athletes, said Ben Horsley, a Granite School District spokesperson. If a school can verify that an address is being used only for that reason, the student can be required to leave and return to their home district, according to the state board.

Horsley said he was unaware of that happening during the pandemic, but he pointed to other inequities within school choice. Lower income families who don’t have the time or ability to help their kids learn at home and can’t transport them to school also can’t take advantage of school choice. He said that was one factor in the decision to keep an in-person option at Granite.

“When you’re talking about full-time distance learning, that can be a real challenge for some families,” he said. “And some individuals don’t feel equipped to be able to assist to that level.”

Planning a move

The state’s early enrollment window runs from Dec. 1 to the third week in February. Schools with more applicants than open seats select transfer students by lotteries. Students who apply outside the window are allowed to transfer if there is room or are added to waiting lists.

Pearce said her kids love and were active in their neighborhood schools. They had no reason to want to transfer elsewhere until the school district’s announcement in late July that it would stay online. By then, the family had long missed the open-enrollment period.

This is where the map, as well as school bell schedules and backup plans, came in handy for Pearce.

First, she had to determine how far away she could feasibly drive and still get all her kids to school on time. Then she had to call each candidate school and ask about the length of its waitlist. Next she had to fill out and submit applications.

Then she had to come up with a backup plan in case the schools didn’t have enough room. Finally, she had to multiply those steps by three as she searched for a place for her seventh, fifth and second grader.

Two weeks after the start of the school year, her seventh grader finally got into Wasatch Junior High. Her second and fifth graders never found spots at a public school together and instead enrolled in private school.

For her 5-year-old, she took the same path as many Utahns and kept her in preschool for an additional year rather than signing her up for kindergarten, which is optional in the state.

She’s grateful for the opportunities that open enrollment provided, and realizes her family is fortunate to be able to pay for private school, to drive the kids to the schools they chose to attend and to have her stay at home and help out her high schooler as needed.

“But, you know, it’s really sad for those kids because we were sort of strung along, hoping that the schools would open, and hoping and hoping,” Pearce said. “And anybody that wants to move at this point or even wanted to move a couple of months ago really doesn’t have that school choice anymore.”

Pearce’s freshman decided to stay at East High School in the Salt Lake City School District because he is an athlete and would lose eligibility if he transferred — another asterisk on the choice plan.

Yet he’s struggling academically and emotionally with the online setup, Pearce said.

“He’s exhausted. All he wants to do is sleep or play video games or watch TV,” she said. “There’s such a difference in how they’re feeling, their emotional well-being, when they’re in the classroom.”

If not handled properly, however, transferring between schools can cause new problems.

How does changing schools affect students?

Legislators initiated school choice to help students find an educational environment in which they can thrive. Yet, the upheaval may actually hurt students’ performance in the classroom and their mental well-being.

The pandemic has added extra school transitions — beyond the usual shifts from elementary to middle school, for example — to the lives of thousands of Utah kids. Overall, it can be hard to adjust to a new school, make friends and get used to the environment. And those issues are even more challenging for high-needs students, such as those learning English, said Aaron Brough, the data and statistics coordinator for the Utah Board of Education.

He’s aware of one student who has transferred eight times this year alone. “That’s not helpful,” Brough said.

Most of the movement has been students leaving traditional public schools and transitioning to private schools or home schooling, he said. In fact, despite having school choice, Utah’s enrollment declined by more than 1,500 students this academic year. Plus, another 7,000 newcomers who were expected to enroll have not, leaving the state with a nearly 9,000-student deficit.

Russell Rumberger, a professor emeritus in the Department of Education at University of California Santa Barbara, has studied student mobility — the movement of kids between schools — and school dropouts. He said the transfer of so many students to other schools and potentially back is bound to have repercussions, especially for older students.

Still, he said, ways exist for parents to mitigate any negative effects. They can transfer their kids with a thoughtful plan and strive to make it work, and they can avoid repeated moves.

“The disruption of changing school environments is going to be real,” he said. “As long as it’s not too frequent, I think it hopefully will not be as detrimental to kids as it could be otherwise.”

During the 2005-06 school year, hurricanes Katrina and Rita at least temporarily displaced a quarter of Louisiana’s public school students. The effects of that displacement on the whole were minimal, according to a 2008 study by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

Nonetheless, some of those transferred students experienced not just academic setbacks but also mental health and behavioral problems. Compared to those who hadn’t been displaced, they were found more likely to be bullying, breaking school rules and engaging in self-isolation.

“Negative effects of displacement may be dominated by two simple factors,” the researchers wrote, “how much schooling time is lost and how many school transitions the student experiences.”

The Louisiana case is one of the largest incidents of student upheaval in the country. Still, it is too soon to say whether the reverberations of something on the scale of the pandemic will be similar.

How school choice affects districts

Brough said it’s hard to know whether Utah students will transfer back to their neighborhood districts once the pandemic subsides. Usually, when a student transfers it’s because their family has moved or they are going to a school with a more rigorous academic program or another feature they want, he said. In those cases, students typically shift and then stay put.

But “this is an unknown year,” with COVID-19, he said. “Will people go back?” Brough asked. “We just don’t know. This is all new.”

Such unpredictability has made school choice difficult for districts as well. For Utah’s public school districts to function as a true free-market system, schools would need to be able to raise the cost of education or increase their supply of open seats to meet the demand. They can do neither.

District funding in Utah is primarily based on the previous year’s enrollment. So, while those receiving out-of-district transfers this year will see a bump in their budget (or less belt-tightening for those with enrollment drops) next year, they can’t count on having similar funds two years down the road.

Horsley doesn’t see the influx into the Granite district this year as a boon. Although it drew in 880 students from Salt Lake City, an increase of more than 18% in such transfers over last year, district enrollment is still down nearly 4% from last year. Plus, for a district that expects to shrink greatly in coming years due to aging neighborhood populations and low birth rates, the transfers are more like an ice cube in a glass of water on a hot day. Any relief they supply will be small and short-lived.

“I think it’s helped temper the decline,” he said, “but the decline is coming either way.”

Planning for next year is going to be “rough,” Peterson said, “for, say, online-only charter schools. What can they expect for hiring teachers next year? Will they see a giant drop or will they basically keep the students because people decided they really kind of like the online option?

“And the same can hold true for the other schools.”

For Pearce, the decision to return her kids to their neighborhood schools won’t just come down to whether they are open for in-person learning next August or not. She said she’s lost trust in the Salt Lake City School District, and now she knows she has options.

So she is again breaking out her map and bell schedules and working on new backup plans, including applying for open-enrollment transfers. And again she’s not alone. She said a line began forming at 7 a.m. outside Olympus High School the first day of the early enrollment period.

“I’ve continued to advocate for [Salt Lake City schools] to open their doors and give families a choice,” she said. “But, ultimately, I had to do what was best for my family.”

— Tribune reporter Courtney Tanner contributed to this story. If you have ideas for coverage of teachers, students and solutions to the challenges education faces during the coronavirus pandemic, please email ctanner@sltrib.com.

The logistics of school choice in Utah

Utah’s open-enrollment policy allows parents to apply to send their kids to any public school in the state, although they must provide transportation. Here’s how it works:

• The early open-enrollment application window runs from Dec. 1 to the third week in February. Parents apply online or at the school their child wants to attend. After that, schools with enough space for all applicants begin the process of enrolling them for fall. At more crowded schools, applicants are entered in a lottery for open spots.

• Students will be notified by March 31 whether their transfer has been approved. Those who aren’t selected via the lottery are put on a waitlist, and anyone submitting a subsequent application is added to the end. Some schools, such as of those in the Park City School District, have already declared themselves at capacity for fall.

• If a new school doesn’t work out, students are allowed to transfer back to their neighborhood school at any time. Students can also apply for transfers during the school year.