Quan Pollock had long felt like the local public school district in Beaufort County wasn’t the best option for her teenage son.
She’d looked at home schooling and seen commercials for virtual charter schools on television, but wasn’t sure her son, who has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, was self-sufficient enough to thrive in a virtual environment where he would have to take greater responsibility for his own education.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, forcing Pollock’s son to finish his freshman year virtually, she realized she had underestimated his ability to learn independently.
“We saw that he would have been able to adjust and maintain himself,” she said.
So over the summer, Pollock joined the burgeoning ranks of South Carolina parents who have abandoned traditional public education during the pandemic and enrolled her son at Connections Academy, the largest of the state’s five virtual charter schools.
The pandemic-fueled exodus of traditional public school students has created an unprecedented explosion in statewide charter school enrollment, especially at virtual charters, which account for nearly two-thirds of this year’s growth, according to education leaders.
More than 14,000 new students have enrolled at charter schools across the state since the end of last school year, bringing total enrollment to roughly 40,000, as of this week. Leaders of the two entities that authorize charter schools statewide project that enrollment this year across all the schools they oversee will increase by more than 40% by the time this semester wraps up.
Another 40,000 children whose parents could not immediately secure seats for them in charter schools have been added to waiting lists, officials said.
“This is really a transformative year for public education in South Carolina, to see parents taking action in this way,” said Chris Neeley, superintendent of the South Carolina Public Charter School District, which comprises 33 charter schools. “We’ve never seen this before.”
Even the state Department of Education’s Virtual SC program, which allows students to virtually take classes their home districts don’t offer, has taken off during the pandemic.
The roughly 13-year-old program has more than quadrupled in size since last fall and now boasts more than 66,000 enrollments, spokesman Ryan Brown said.
“We’ve had to hire a bunch of new teachers to cover those classes,” he said. “Online virtual programs are hot commodities.”
Giving charters a chance in a pandemic
For many parents, the bumps their children’s traditional schools experienced as they transitioned quickly to online learning amid the pandemic earlier this year drove them to consider charter schools for the first time.
Gov. Henry McMaster closed traditional public schools March 15, as the novel coronavirus was spreading rapidly across the state. The decision forced schools to move swiftly to find alternatives to teaching students in person.
Disappointment over districts’ slapdash transition to online learning in the spring and uncertainty surrounding when and how schools would reopen in the fall left some parents to explore other options, charter leaders said.
Charter schools — free, independently-operated alternatives to traditional public schools that promise to find innovative ways to deliver academic success — appealed to parents who preferred their smaller class sizes and responsiveness to families’ evolving needs, Neeley said.
“What you’re seeing is charter schools are more nimble; their DNA is based on innovation,” he said. “That innovation is attracting the attention of parents who want something different.”
In the past, some charters, especially virtual ones, have faced challenges delivering on those promises, as lagging test scores have driven questions about whether they were accountable for poor academic outcomes.
Proponents of online virtual schools say they cater to students who often don’t succeed in traditional settings, and that for many students, online charter schools are a pathway to graduating.
Now the pandemic is driving a different group of students to them.
For parents like Pollock, who prize 100% virtual instruction due to coronavirus concerns, but desire an online learning experience superior to the ones their home districts can offer, virtual charters represent an attractive alternative.
“They made the transition easy,” Pollock said of her son’s new school. “Everything was set up for us. All we had to do was walk into it.”
Pollock said she was thankful that her son’s classes aren’t plagued by persistent technical issues and appreciates that Connections Academy’s instructors know how to conduct online classes rather than needing to learn new techniques on the fly.
“These teachers are pros at this stuff now and they know just how to control their classrooms,” she said. “They know just what to turn on and what to turn off and have the focus be on them and their teaching.”
While virtual charters account for the majority of new charter students statewide, children of parents who aren’t necessarily sold on the benefits of online learning but live in districts that have not resumed in-person instruction also make up a significant portion of first-time charter students, Neeley said.
Parents reluctant to forego the benefits of hands-on instruction and peer socialization that are fostered in traditional school settings are moving their kids to brick-and-mortar charter schools, which, for the most part, opened the year offering face-to-face classes at least a couple days a week, he said.
Juliet Roberts, of Columbia, who pulled her daughters from Richland 1 schools after the district announced that all classes would be virtual to start the year, said she felt like it was important for her girls to have at least some face-to-face learning.
“I just wanted my children to have a sort of normal school experience, as normal as they could for this year,” Roberts said. “And that was not an option with the public school.”
Her fifth grader, who struggled with the abrupt transition to virtual learning last spring, is attending a private school that offers in-person instruction five days a week, and her seventh grader is enrolled at Midlands Arts Conservatory, a Columbia charter school with a hybrid learning option that gets kids in the classroom twice weekly.
Will charter school enrollment gains last?
It remains to be seen whether charters can maintain their current enrollment after all traditional public schools have reopened for five-day, in-person instruction — whenever that may occur.
But Neeley and his counterpart at the Charter Institute at Erskine, the state’s largest charter authorizer based on enrollment, believe this year’s gains are sustainable.
“I really anticipate that the virtual enrollment growth is going to hold,” said Cameron Runyan, superintendent and CEO of the Charter Institute at Erskine, which sponsors four of South Carolina’s five virtual charter schools, including Connections Academy, and 22 schools total.
“I think the world has fundamentally changed,” he said. “I think the way people view education and the way they calculate real or perceived risk around education has forever changed, at least for some, and that will continue to fuel demand, particularly in the virtual space.”
Neeley, whose district is heavy on brick-and-mortar charters, is similarly bullish on their ability to retain students who have fled traditional public schools this year during the pandemic.
“Once a child goes to a charter school, the parents don’t want to go back,” he said. “They like the individual attention their kids get.”
Pollock, for one, said she can’t envision sending her son back to a traditional, in-person public school, even after she feels safe doing so.
“We can see him grow now in his education and be more confident about his education and his learning without having to worry about the small things that were distracting him before,” she said.
Her only regret, she said, is that she didn’t make the switch to online learning sooner.
“I think if I would have started this charter schooling years ago, when I initially thought about it, his self-esteem as far as his learning would be so much higher and he would have achieved many more goals because the atmosphere is different,” Pollock said. “He’s given a little more control over how he learns as opposed to the traditional school setting.”
Roberts and Molly Condrey, an Indian Land resident who enrolled her sixth grade daughter at Connections Academy this year due to COVID-19 concerns and uncertainty about her home district’s reopening plans, are undecided on whether they’ll stick with charters in the future.
Both said they’d had positive experiences with their kids’ respective charter schools so far, but that it was too soon to tell whether keeping them there beyond this year made sense.
“I will stick it out this year because it’s going well and I do think my daughter enjoys the education part of it more,” said Condrey, whose daughter had previously attended Lancaster County schools. “We will have to have a meeting on it at the end of the year and see where the world is. I would not mind continuing with this, it has had many benefits to it, but it’s too new to say.”
Regardless of what they ultimately decide is best for their children, both said the pandemic had made them think differently about school choice and opened their eyes to the alternative education options available to them.
“This has definitely changed my mind about virtual schools,” said Condrey, whose biggest reservation about keeping her daughter at Connections Academy beyond this year involves the perceived loss of socialization opportunities. “I had never thought I’d send her to a full on virtual school in the past.”
Dave Wilson, a spokesman for the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina, a nonprofit charter advocacy organization, said he believes that parents’ recognition of and willingness to explore alternative school options for their children may end up being the coronavirus pandemic’s most lasting impact on education in this country.
“The pandemic has helped parents realize that there are other choices out there and they can then look at those choices and decide which one is going to be best for each of their children,” he said. “This is the place where the individualization of education is going to really begin to take root in South Carolina.”
As Pollock readily acknowledges, she is a prime example of a parent turned on to school choice by COVID-19.
“Having to deal with (virtual learning) because of the pandemic, it definitely opened my eyes and gave me the avenue to step into it, and I’m glad that we did,” she said. “I’m not grateful that the world is going through this because it’s definitely caused an uproar in many people’s lives. But as far as (my son’s) education is concerned, I’m grateful we had stepped into it to see the benefit it has brought to his education.”