Here’s how enrollment at Utah’s virtual schools is doing two years after start of pandemic

Some schools have seen record booms while others report big dips.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Laura Jettison leads her virtual fifth grade class in a science lesson from Parkview Elementary School in Salt Lake City, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022.

Salt Lake Virtual Elementary debuted last year in the Salt Lake City School District, teaching kindergarten through sixth grade classes online to 259 kids.

This fall, its enrollment has dropped by 200 students.

That plunge is a concern for Principal Ken Limb. But the prospect of shrinking class sizes — from between 15 and 24 kids last year, to an average of about 10 this fall — also has him literally rubbing his hands together in excitement. Smaller classes, he said, “give teachers even more time with their students and [more] individual attention.”

And the student departures are not a judgment on the school, he believes, citing positive comments from parents in most of its end-of-year surveys. Families said they loved Salt Lake Virtual, Limb said, but they wanted their kids to be able to play with friends at recess and lunch time.

“We feel like this is the future,” Limb said. “It might not be the immediate future for some, but I think this is definitely an option that parents need.”

Here’s how other Utah virtual schools are doing, two years after students were forced to learn online in the spring of 2020 and many stayed out of classrooms that fall.

A boom at Mountain Heights Academy

Mountain Heights Academy, a virtual public charter school that opened in 2009, had seen its enrollment gradually increase and reach 800 students before the school year that began in the fall of 2019, said Principal DeLaina Tonks.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, its population exploded beyond 1,300 students — in grades seven through 12 — for the 2020-21 school year. Enrollment receded to 971 for the most recent school year.

But this fall, Tonks said, enrollment has set a new record.

More than 1,500 students are taking at least one class at the charter school — with more than two-thirds of them studying online full-time.

About 75% of students opted to remain at Mountain Heights after choosing online school because of the pandemic, Tonks said. Many of the about 375 new students are taking what Tonks calls the “best of both worlds” approach — alternating on “A” and “B” days between online instruction and classes at the brick and mortar school that has their home inside its enrollment boundaries.

“It’s very gratifying to see students be able to be in the driver’s seat and choose a schedule that fits their needs,” Tonks said.

The Utah Legislature updated the Statewide Online Education Program during the 2022 session to allow students to take individual courses at online schools, which previously only offered classes to students who enrolled there full time.

Mountain Heights beefed up the number of courses it offers to such hybrid students ahead of the school year, and Tonks believes they will be a main source of growth for the school going forward.

Around the Valley

Enrollment in Canyons Online High School classes has stayed steady, said district spokesperson Jeff Haney, with about 4,500 students taking one or more virtual classes this fall. Last year, the district offered approximately 15,000 virtual classes.

But there are just 64 K-5 students enrolled in Canyons Online this year, Haney said.

Flexibility remains a major selling point, he said. “We found that for those who continued in online school, it’s been good for their families,” Haney said, and online students are “achieving at higher levels” than they generally had during in-person instruction.

In Jordan School District, Kings Peak High School reached its capacity of 250 full-time students by the end of its first school year, in 2021-22. Around 2,000 others took at least one class at the school, which had to hire more teachers in the summer.

There were 48 students in Kings Peak’s first graduating class in June, and principal Ammon Weimers anticipates that number will grow in the years to come.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kings Peak High School students move their tassels at the end of commencement exercises at the virtual learning school in Bluffdale on Thursday, June 2, 2022. From left are Tessa Marty, Taylor DiAntonio, and Whitney Face.

Jordan’s Virtual Learning Academy accommodates students throughout K-12 in its three schools — Rocky Peak Elementary, Kelsey Peak Middle and Kings Peak High. Any student who lives in Utah can take a class at Kings Peak.

The future of virtual schools in Salt Lake City

While small classes can benefit students, Limb acknowledges that he wants to see enrollment grow at Salt Lake Virtual Elementary so the district will “continue to have our school going,” he said. “I think there are people out there who still haven’t heard about us.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Laura Jettison leads her virtual fifth grade class in a science lesson at Parkview Elementary School in Salt Lake City, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022.

Last year, students attended classes online together for four days a week. On Wednesdays, kids learned at their own pace and teachers encouraged struggling students to come to the virtual school’s home base at Parkview Elementary, near Salt Lake City’s Poplar Grove neighborhood.

But that approach didn’t really bring parents to Parkview, Limb said.

He hopes the school’s new full-time synchronous approach — where students sign on to Zoom for live classes each day, along with new arts and music programs — will help enrollment bounce back. The school hosts an in-person social activity each month and is planning its first field trip to the Leonardo Museum in March.

Limb has heard from parents who decided to enroll their child in the wake of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where an 18-year-old fatally shot 19 students and two teachers, and wounded 17 others. “I don’t want students to have to be in our school because of fear,” Limb said. “But those are factors.”

He expects the perks of online school — such as its flexibility and data it provides for teachers to use in lesson planning — will continue to be valuable to parents in the future. “I don’t expect [enrollment] to bounce back by hundreds in the next month, but I do think that it will be a slow increase,” Limb said.

Salt Lake City School District is also in the early stages of launching a new online instruction program for middle school students. This year, 20 middle school students who want to attend virtual classes are enrolled at Clayton Middle School, on 1470 S. 1900 East, spokesperson Yándary Chatwin said, and the district plans to evaluate such online instruction at the end of the school year.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Laura Jettison leads her virtual fifth grade class in a science lesson at Parkview Elementary School in Salt Lake City, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022.

Correction • Noon, Sept. 21, 2022: This story has been updated to correct the description of high school and K-5 enrollment in Canyons Online classes.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.