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Greener pastures? Parents seeking options for their kids as start of school year nears

Two online public charter schools seek OK to lift enrollment caps as demand outstrips supply

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An empty classroom at Mount Jordan Middle School in Sandy is pictured on Tuesday, April 14, 2020.

An empty classroom at Mount Jordan Middle School in Sandy is pictured on Tuesday, April 14, 2020.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — With the global COVID-19 pandemic as a backdrop, Tiffany Munns spent months deciding where her children would attend school this fall.

The Munns family lives in the Salt Lake City School District and their children have attended city schools. This fall, the school district will provide remote learning with teacher-led instruction and other services such as nutrition and special programs with plans to gradually return to classrooms when COVID-19 infection rates subside.

After a lot of time spent researching options, the family’s sons — one a senior and the other a freshman — will remain at Highland High School, where they both play football.

Their daughter Lucy, who starts seventh grade this fall, will attend Granite School District’s Wasatch Junior High, which is offering traditional in-person instruction.

“She’s super social and she plays the violin,” said Munns. The school, which has a strong academic tradition, is about a five-minute drive from their house and Lucy will be able to participate in orchestra, which made it an attractive option.

The Munnses are one of some 300 Salt Lake City households that obtained permits to attend Granite District schools this fall, according to spokesman Ben Horsley.

Murray School District spokesman Doug Perry said the district will have 524 new students this fall, most evenly divided between transfers from Salt Lake City and Granite district boundaries, but also charter schools and home-schooled students.

Munns said Lucy is sad about leaving her classmates, but with Salt Lake schools starting the year with remote learning, the mother noted it’s not as though she’d be interacting with her friends as usual because they’ll be learning from home.

“She’s pretty nervous about going to a different school, but she has one cousin who goes to Wasatch who’s her same age so that helps,” Munns said.

Mostly, the decision was driven by the opportunity for in-person instruction, she said.

“She’s an honor student and just really likes to be engaged. She’s at that age where she just really loves learning and I just think online learning saps any excitement for learning,” Munns said.

Other parents, however, are attempting to enroll in Utah’s online charter schools in droves.

This past week, the Utah Virtual Academy and Utah Connections Academy both asked the State Charter School Board to lift their enrollment caps so they can better serve more than 2,000 students on their respective waiting lists.

The state charter board endorsed the request, which will next be considered by the Utah State Board of Education. If it is approved, state lawmakers will need to address funding and policy issues to help meet the demand.

Royce Van Tassell, executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, said the “significant surge” in enrollment is driven by some parents’ concerns about the health risks of sending their children back to school in person during the global pandemic.

Still others seek consistency in their children’s school schedules concerned if there are outbreaks that they’ll be back in the same boat they were last spring, facilitating their children’s learning at home.

Utah Online School, which is a traditional public school that is part of Washington County School District, is experiencing exponential demand, said Laura Belnap, director of the K-12 school which serves students statewide.

“In our K-8 school, we have three and a half times the number that we had last year,” and the school has a wait list “until we train teachers and we can move people off that list. I don’t want to take kids and not have trained teachers,” she said.

Some parents are worried that if their children restart school in their neighborhood schools that they will be sent home if an outbreak occurs. Some are shifting to schools that specialize in remote learning as their sole mode of instruction.

“What they’re looking for right now is continuity. We’re up and running and we’re here for you. How can we help you?” said Utah Connections Academy’s Teresa Beauregard.

The demand is unprecedented, said Meghan Merideth, Utah Virtual Academy’s head of school. The K-12 online public charter school has an enrollment cap of 2,050 students.

“We hit that this year in the second week in July and traditionally we’re hitting that towards the end of August, first of September,” Merideth told the State Charter School Board.

On top of that, “we have over 700 students that are fully compliant with all their paperwork ready to go. We have an additional 1,638 applications that are somewhere in the application process with 80 to 100 new applications started every day,” she said.

Utah Connections Academy Principal Erin Taylor told the charter board that its enrollment is capped at 1,250.

“Our wait list is ... in various stages but we believe that we could serve 1,000 more students that are greatly interested in joining our school,” Taylor said.

Parents are also exploring private and parochial schools as options for in-person instruction.

“One of the advantages that many of our schools have is that they have a small student population. This has allowed them to provide a good level of social distancing. Our larger schools have, in some cases, limited enrollment to provide for manageable class sizes,” said Mark Longe, Utah Catholic Schools superintendent.

Utah’s Catholic schools admit children of all faiths and are still accepting applications for enrollment for the 2020-21 school year. Classes start Monday, in person.

Most school districts are offering an array of options as the school year gets underway — in-person instruction, a mix of remote learning and in-school instruction, or online instruction.

Public charter schools were recently granted the flexibility to also offer remote learning if it was not already part of their operating agreements.

Van Tassell said there will understandably be some churn in school enrollments statewide as parents seek programs and schools where they believe their children will be safe and their educational and social emotional needs can be met.

“Enrollment this year is inevitably going to look weird because different parents are looking for different things. Is it going to be systematic fleeing districts and going to charters? Not at all,” he said.

“But honestly, we won’t have any idea what that measure looks like until the (state’s) Oct. 1 (headcount) numbers come out,” he said.