Afton Bond made the difficult decision to quit her job and enroll her kindergarten daughter in an online program before the start of the current school year.
The coronavirus pandemic created too many uncertainties for Bond, who worked at the same school her daughter attended, Children’s House Montessori School in Lewiston.
“I’m grateful that we have this opportunity, just with my anxiety and anxiousness toward both of us being in a school setting,” she said. “Granted CHMS was doing all the right things. … They are required to wear masks, they frequently wash their hands and keep their distance. It’s not necessarily that I’m uncomfortable, but I was just worried about being exposed on a daily basis.”
Bond signed her daughter, Omah Ankney, up for the Idaho Virtual Academy, which delivers its curriculum through an online learning management platform. Omah, who has already completed three years of in-person preschool, at first missed her routine, friends and teachers.
“There was a little heartache, but now we are in a routine,” Bond said.
She is one of many parents who decided to pull their children out of a traditional school setting in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. School districts across the nation have seen decreases in enrollment as students decided to take part in remote options. Some families signed up for remote learning through their school districts, while others decided to go with more established programs.
Increase in demand
Online programs in both Idaho and Washington have seen dramatic increases in the number of students who have enrolled.
Idaho Virtual Academy increased from around 2,000 students last year to 4,000 students this year.
“It’s been wild,” said Kelly Edginton, the head of school for the academy. “We’ve hired a lot of new staff, and we are still hiring new staff. We’ve been very fortunate to be able to find qualified people.”
Idaho Virtual Academy has been able to accommodate the increased demand with no waitlists. Its counterpart program in the Evergreen State, however, has reached its capacity of around 7,000 students.
By contrast, the Washington school had between 4,300 and 4,500 students enrolled at the end of last year.
Summer Shelton, head of school for the Washington Virtual Academy, said students who are interested in enrolling have been put on waitlists.
“We typically open all year for enrollment in small cohorts, and every couple weeks a new cohort starts, but we hit our capacity very early on,” Shelton said. “So unless people withdraw, we can’t enroll and fill more seats. When someone withdraws, we backfill that seat to capacity.”
The Idaho Digital Learning Academy, another program available in the Gem State, saw its enrollment increase more than 240 percent this fall. Students signed up to take almost 29,000 courses this fall.
The academy tracks the number of courses students sign up for, not the number of students who have enrolled to take classes.
“Most students just took one class until COVID hit, so that’s how we track everything,” explained Will Goodman, the director of district programs.
Typically, the program’s enrollment grows 6 percent each year. This year’s enrollment jump is two-fold, according to Goodman.
“One is just the increase in students wanting to take their full program at home because of the pandemic, and part of the increase is because we added an elementary program this fall,” he said. “The (Idaho) State Board of Education and the governor’s office asked us to start that up in response to COVID.”
Even without the introduction of the elementary school program, which for now only offers English language arts and math, the Idaho Digital Learning Academy saw about a 200 percent increase at its secondary level, which offers around 240 courses to its students.
The academy, according to Goodman, has some waitlists in areas they don’t have control over, like dual-credit courses and hard-to-fill subject areas like Mandarin and sign language.
All three programs hired additional staff this year to keep up with the demand.
Schools in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley have seen a decrease in enrollment numbers, which in turn impacts the funding they receive.
The Clarkston School District typically sees a small drop in enrollment each year, but this year there were about 50 students below what they had anticipated, according to Keri Myklebust, the district’s executive assistant to the superintendent.
The school district currently receives more than $8,400 from the state for a full-time student in the basic education category. That number changes if a student is in a special education, highly capable, career technical education or bilingual program.
A total of 397 students signed up for Clarkston Online, the school district’s remote learning program, and 10 students signed up for the Clarkston Home Alliance, which offers curriculum and support for homeschooling famlies. Kids in both of those programs are included in the school district’s October enrollment numbers, which landed at about 2,450 full-time equivalent students.
“We have a lot of people I’ve spoken to that have said, ‘We want to fully come back, but until all of this gets ironed out with the COVID stuff, we are just going to keep our kids out (of a traditional school setting),’ ” Myklebust said. “Sometimes it’s a financial decision because of how expensive child care is, or a conflict with parents who don’t want their kid to wear a mask and are choosing to keep them home.”
The Lewiston School District also has seen an enrollment decline of about 45 students this year, compared to the beginning of the 2019-20 school year. Kimberly Eimers, the school district’s director of student services, said before the pandemic, enrollment had been going up.
“It’s a pretty healthy impact on our budget,” Eimers said, of the decrease.
Assistant Superintendent Lance Hansen said in a normal year the drop in enrollment would equate to about $200,000, but some “hold harmless language” in the state of Idaho will soften the impact this year.
Lewiston currently has about 94 students enrolled in its own online learning program.
The Asotin-Anatone School District is down about 46 kids from the number it budgeted for the current school year.
The addition of transitional kindergarten helped the school district avoid a more severe decline in its numbers.
“We added on 40 students to what we had,” said Julie Hancock, the school district’s business manager. “We are thankful for the transitional kindergarten classes, because it saved our enrollment.”
Hancock said the school district is waiting on information from the state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to determine the impact the drop in enrollment will have on its budget.
Although the declines in enrollment numbers are similar for the school districts in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley, Superintendent Dale Bonfield said Asotin will realize a larger financial hit than its neighboring districts because of its smaller size.
The school district has 23 students enrolled in its fully remote learning program.
COVID-19 in the schools
Districts in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley have all seen cases of COVID-19 within their schools.
The Lewiston School District has reported 11 cases since it opened in the “green phase,” which provides traditional face-to-face learning for all of its students. One of those cases may have been contracted in the schools.
The Clarkston School District has had 10 students and staff members test positive for COVID-19 in the seven weeks since the start of school, according to Superintendent Thaynan Knowlton. All of the cases have been traced to community spread outside of the schools.
The Asotin-Anatone School District had one student who tested positive for COVID-19. Bonfield said that student, and those quarantined because of close contact with the individual, have all returned to school.
On Friday, Bonfield said one parent in the school district recently took a COVID-19 test. If the test comes back positive, it could lead to more students who need to be quarantined.
Both school districts in Asotin County have offered a hybrid learning model for their students.
Clarkston returned in a modified format that limited the capacity in its buildings to 50 percent to accommodate 6 feet of social distance between students. Students in elementary school attend a morning or an afternoon session four days a week, while secondary level students go to classes two days a week.
In Asotin, students in preschool through eighth grades attend school for face-to-face learning Monday through Friday, while ninth through 12th grade students attend on an A/B schedule, or every other day.
When students are not in classes in Clarkston or Asotin, they learn remotely.
‘It’s been amazing’
Bond said she plans to keep Omah enrolled in the Idaho Virtual Academy for the rest of the school year because of the pandemic, then intends to reenroll her in a traditional school setting, hopefully next year.
She now works from her home in Lewiston, teaching English online so she can help her daughter with her schooling.
“It’s been amazing,” she said. “When we signed up, it took just over a week to be provided with a printer, laptop and books. … They’ve provided everything free of cost, and getting a computer alone is huge. The curriculum is big for me, because I was not readily available to create my own kindergarten curriculum in such short time.”
Omah typically works through the curriculum provided by the school from 8 a.m. to noon. Bond then adds what she calls “practical life lessons” in the afternoon hours. Some days, the two will bake cookies or practice yoga.
Learning from home may not be a long-term answer for Omah, but Bond said she’s confident her daughter will end the year where she needs to be in order to meet grade-level benchmarks.
“I don’t mind (her learning from home), but I think she thrives better in a full classroom experience,” she said. “This is just a way to get through the hard times.”
Tomtas may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (208) 848-2294. Follow her on Twitter @jtomtas.