Two online charter schools in Utah see massive jumps in enrollment during pandemic

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Connections Academy in Woods Cross, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.

Two Utah charter schools that specialize in online learning have seen a huge jump in families looking to enroll kids there this fall — instead of returning to their traditional K-12 districts — while the coronavirus pandemic wears on.

Utah Connections Academy, based in Woods Cross, has had roughly 1,000 more students statewide seeking to register for its online classes than usual. And Utah Virtual Academy, which is separately owned and has offices in Murray, has had an additional 1,500 students interested.

“There is a high demand from parents wanting a school that is fully online and that has been doing online for a number of years,” said Jennifer Lambert, executive director of the Utah State Charter School Board.

On Tuesday, after initial approval from the charter board, the supervisory Utah Board of Education unanimously voted to support granting waivers for both schools to increase their enrollment caps for the fall and accommodate the interest. That will require the reallocation of about $8 million in state funds. And it will be among the biggest shifts of students transferring to Utah charters in recent years with a combined 2,500 children.

The state, overall, is also expected to see major movement throughout its traditional public school system, which is open enrollment. It’s likely — and some districts have already reported — that students will transfer districts based on how they’re providing education during COVID-19. Hundreds of kids, for instance, have left Salt Lake City School District (as it starts the year entirely online) to move to Granite School District (offering in-person instruction four days a week). Others have left Canyons or Jordan to go to Salt Lake City.

A formal count and analysis of the student migration isn’t expected until Sept. 9.

But, already, the move from the state board Tuesday shows: Those that have experience offering virtual instruction are becoming a popular option for some parents worried about their kids getting sick if they return to the classroom.

“We’re in unprecedented times,” Lambert added. “And there is an unprecedented demand for online education."

Utah Connections Academy, which is run by a national parent for-profit founded in 2001, started holding classes here in the state in 2011. It currently has 1,037 students signed up for the upcoming year, with a cap previously set by the state board at 1,250.

Principal Erin Taylor said Tuesday that the school will now be able to welcome an additional 1,207 students on its waitlist from across Utah, mostly in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Unlike traditional public schools that had to switch online in a hurry this spring when schools shut down, Taylor said, the academy’s foundation is in delivering education virtually. Students won’t be left behind. Laptops will be provided to those in need. Families can also apply for a subsidy for internet costs.

“The online, virtual environment has been our model for decades,” Taylor added. “We’re ready for this.”

The chairman of the board for Utah Virtual Academy, Brian Maxwell, similarly believes the new popularity in the program there is also based on the school’s expertise in online education.

He said families don’t want a repeat of the chaos this spring in transitioning online in their school districts. They want their kids to get a quality education, he suggested, from the safety of their homes.

“We’re not here to hide the secret sauce for the Big Mac,” Maxwell said. “We want to be part of the solution here for the state during this pandemic.”

Utah Virtual Academy, which opened in 2015, currently has a cap of 2,050 students. An additional 1,450 have tried to enroll for the fall beyond that.

The school is also run by a national company, like Utah Connections Academy. But the operation of Utah Virtual Academy has faced some issues in Utah. It was previously placed on turnaround status — designated for the lowest-performing schools in the state — for low test scores. It has since successfully exited that reform program, and Maxwell said academy has made adjustments to better instruct students.

In order to accommodate the influx for the fall, it will need to hire about 40 to 50 more teachers and purchase about 400 extra laptops. Taylor said Utah Connections Academy will only need an additional 16 to 18 staff.

Before approving the increased enrollment caps, that was the main concern from members of the Utah Board of Education. Board chair Mark Huntsman questioned how the two charters planned to find employees with an ongoing teacher shortage in the state. “Where are these teachers going to come from that are not already under contract?” he asked

Taylor said her academy has already had about eight teachers apply. And it plans to do enrollment in waves this fall, onboarding cohorts of students over the next few weeks as new educators are trained.

Both Taylor and Maxwell said that they expect, too, to be able to pick up teachers that have either resigned or retired early from their districts over COVID-19 concerns in returning to the classroom.

Utah State Board of Education member Mike Haynes said after reviewing the plans for both academies, he believes, “There’s some great preparation there.”

The approved increases for enrollment are for the 2020-2021 school year, as a special exception during the pandemic. Utah Connections Academy is applying, in a separate process, to have that cap increase become permanent. Utah Virtual Academy is not. It expects many students to return to their brick and mortar classrooms next year, hopefully when it’s safer.

Both of the charters offer all digital K-12 classes, with some in-person clubs and field trips. And, because they’re public, there’s no tuition.