The virtual impact: How the pandemic influenced student enrollment

Virtual schooling a driver to private, charter options

MADISON, Wis. – The pandemic shook things up for all of us: how we work, play and learn. When many schools switched to virtual learning, many families and their students switched schools. Those who didn’t often had to learn a whole new way of schooling.

Going to a new school isn’t easy, especially when you never set foot in the building.

“It was hard,” sixth-grader Presley Rhindfleisch said. “It was like standing in a room of strangers.”

She started middle school over Zoom, finding little to praise about virtual learning.

“There wasn’t really anything to like about it,” she said.

Like so many parents, Presley’s mom Jennifer Rhindfleisch had to make a choice for both of her daughters. Presley stayed in the Madison Metropolitan School District.

“For her grade and the older kids, it has been pretty good. They know how to handle tech stuff,” Rhindfleisch said. “My youngest, that was a struggle.”

Jennifer’s six-year-old, Addie, tried out virtual learning, too.

“We did one week of her public schooling and she cried every day,” Rhindfleisch said. “She was begging to go to a school that was open.”

So sending her first-grader to a private school turned out to be an easy choice.

“It was more like I wanted her to be happy and I wanted her to still be able to learn,” Rhindfleisch said. “I kept hearing she’s so young, you don’t have to stress about them not learning to read. I just didn’t feel that way. I wanted her to soak that in right now at this age.”

It’s a choice many other parents made, as well.

Private schools see increased interest, enrollment

Chuck Moore is principal at the High Point Christian School on the west side of Madison and oversees Impact Christian Schools, which includes a campus in Mt. Horeb along with Abundant Life Christian School and Lighthouse Christian School.

“All our campuses had tremendous inquiries and would’ve been able to have more students if we had more space,” Moore said. “This has been our biggest year of enrollment we’ve ever had with private pay families. The Choice Program didn’t allow last-minute applications, so everyone who came had to pay.”

High Point Christian School serves students pre-K through eighth grade. They’ve expanded classroom size as just one of their safety measures. Some students are still taking the virtual option, but not many.

“Our challenge has been to create as normal as possible school in the midst of, I don’t know, I think of it as crazy. In the midst of crazy,” Moore said, adding that he’s proud to say there was no COVID spread within the school.

In-person classes have been going on for more than 150 days now. Moore thinks that factors in to the increased interest at his school, including from families with students and nearby public districts, where in-person wasn’t an option.

“There was a lot of rejection of virtual as the best way to do it and frustration. It depends on the student and how well that works. I think parents wondered whether their kids were getting the kind of education they needed them to get,” he said. “Public school brethren worked as hard as we did. We’re just grateful we had the opportunity to give kids a chance at the kind of education we represent.”

Public schools see decreased enrollment

In our area’s five biggest school districts, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction numbers show enrollment went down at the start of the 2020/21 school year compared to the previous year.

According to DPI, MMSD’s enrollment count as of the third Friday of September when data is officially tracked was 26,151, showing a decline of nearly 700 from 2019/20. In the past few years, enrollment numbers were fairly stable. News 3 Now hasn’t heard back from the district on a number of questions, including whether additional students left during the school year.

MMSD offered mostly virtual learning last year, with a staged return to in-person instruction offered to younger grades first starting in March.

An MMSD snapshot from fall semester shows most students who left had moved to another Wisconsin district, while about 10% switched to private or homeschooling. About 90% of the decrease in enrollment came from elementary-grade and 4K students.

The Sun Prairie School District began its year virtually, with an official enrollment of 8,366, down 109 from the previous year. That’s after a small decrease the year before and an increase the year before that. The district didn’t respond to requests for information.

Beloit had 5,923 students, down 424, which continued a trend of decreased enrollment in the past three years. Beloit schools started the year all-virtual. The district didn’t return requests for comment.

The Middleton Cross Plains Area School district was anticipating a 120 student increase in the 2020/21 school year, instead losing about that many compared to the previous year, putting them at 7,410 by the third Friday in September. A district spokesperson said they then lost about 300 students after that over the duration of the school year. He said that can be attributed to the pandemic and the decision to remain virtual for the first half of the school year, when many families found in-person alternatives.

“The pandemic has certainly highlighted the fact there are other options and choices for kids,” Janesville Superintendent Steve Pophal said.

The Janesville School District had 9,574 students as of the third Friday of September last year. That’s down 325 from the same time the previous school year.

For districts such as Janesville, the enrollment decline was the reflection of ongoing trend the past several years, pandemic or not.

“We might have had a little bit of additional or exacerbation from that, but some of that was baked in,” Pophal said.

Virtual Charter schools welcome more students

In the Janesville School District, students had the opportunity to return to class in person on the first day of school this past year or enroll in the district’s established virtual charter school – a unique option when many districts’ virtual offerings were newly developed, with educators often teaching an in-person classroom at the same time they taught students virtually at home.

“That (virtual charter) school historically housed 2-300 kids,” Pophal said. “Once that choice opened up under premise of pandemic, that enrollment bulged to 3,200.”

That trend extends statewide. DPI numbers show enrollment in Wisconsin’s about 50 virtual charter schools nearly doubled from the 2019/20 school year to the 2020/21 school year, from 8,896 to 16,020.

The Wisconsin Virtual Academy, an established virtual charter school, saw a similar-sized jump at its K-8 school, going from 1,059 to 2,040 students at the start of the year.

“We definitely had the platform and all the tools,” said Carrie Cherney, the associate principal at the program’s high schools. “The open enrollment exception window goes even after school year starts. That’s where we ended up getting a lot of students this year, even after school started, because they realized they needed a more consistent plan. Nobody was really sure what was happening at their local district.”

Will students who switched stay?

Janesville’s virtual charter school is now down to 1,500 with less planning to return next year, but some liked the option enough to stay.

“The fact that our charter school typically had 200 kids, now 400 next year is a reflection of that,” Pophal said.

For some students, virtual learning missed the mark.

Middleton Cross Plains is again projecting an enrollment increase next year when classes will be in-person. The district surveyed families who withdrew their children, finding about 25% said they would have their students return in the 2021/22 school year and 30% indicated they would make that decision later, “although they intimated it would be based on if we were fully in-person next year,” according to the spokesperson.

High Point Christian School is expecting its additional students to stay next year. Moore said they have had a significant increase in applications from years past as part of the Private School Choice Program.

“Our campus is up about 20, 25 students. That’s fairly significant for us,” Moore said. “It looks like that number will be higher next year.”

Moore said the students who switched in the middle of the year had a tougher time keeping up. He also worries about the kids growing up in poverty who faced some of the biggest problems during the pandemic and a potential widening of the achievement gap in Madison. At the same time, next year is already looking brighter.

“There’s a lot of reasons why there’s hope, I think,” Moore said.

Rhindfleisch plans to keep her youngest daughter at her new private school.

“Every single day she comes home and says, ‘I had the best day ever’,” Rhindfleisch said. “We don’t want to rip her back and forth. She’s set in her ways and that was the biggest thing, knowing when we make the choice to take her, knowing we weren’t going to go back.”

Presley is looking forward to returning in-person next year, getting back to everything she missed the previous year.

“Socializing with other people and just being able to be around other kids,” she said.

Related: Failing classes, declining grades: Whether virtual or in-person, pandemic learning has been a hurdle, Parents will need to work hard to get students caught up after virtual learning causes ‘COVID slide’