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Interest in online K-12 schools is surging in response to the educational disruption prompted by COVID-19.

At K12, the nation’s largest online charter school operator, enrollment increased from 123,000 to 170,000 students this year, according to reporting by Chalkbeat. At Connections Academy, another large online charter school company, applications have reportedly increased by 61 percent.

A similar picture is emerging in a more niche corner of the K-12 market -- online schools run by universities.

At Arizona State University Prep Digital, an online public charter school run by the Tempe, Ariz.-based public university, student enrollment has grown by almost 700 percent -- from 600 full-time students in 2019 to around 4,500 students this year.

This growth is partially explained by the fact that ASU Prep Digital welcomed its first classes of kindergartners through eighth graders this August -- adding to the existing grades 9 to 12 launched in 2017. The COVID-19 pandemic nonetheless played a major role in driving interest in the school and is continuing to drive new inquiries from families in the state of Arizona and nationally.

“We are definitely hearing from families that the pandemic is a catalyst for our growth,” said Julie Young, chief executive officer at ASU Prep Digital. “Families went through a rocky spring. They are looking for stability.”

In the spring semester, many traditional K-12 schools switched to remote instruction without equipping teachers with the right training or tools, Young said. Since ASU Prep Digital was conceived as a fully online institution, some parents feel the school is "a less risky option" than waiting to see how the fall semester at their local school pans out.

While ASU Prep Digital is drawing students from schools that are grappling with the impact of the pandemic, its leaders are eager to share its online learning expertise with other institutions, Young said. ASU Prep Digital is actively providing training in online teaching and learning to public school teachers in Arizona and elsewhere.

The Arizona Virtual Teaching Institute, an initiative of ASU Prep Digital, provides free training to teachers with financial support from the Arizona Department of Education, the state's governor's office, Helios Education Foundation and ASU. The institute has so far helped 3,200 of the state’s 4,800 teachers prepare to offer remote or hybrid instruction, said Amy McGrath, chief operating officer at ASU Prep Digital.

By helping neighboring schools offer better online teaching and learning, including licensing content and offering remote instruction to schools where there are teacher shortages, ASU Prep Digital is helping to raise the profile of online education, McGrath said. Online K-12 has some bad actors with poor student outcomes, but high-tech, high-touch personalized learning is “something that should be an option for every student,” she said.

The rapid expansion of ASU Prep Digital -- including both the launch of K-8 and additional students due to the pandemic -- required “significant investment in staffing and infrastructure up front,” McGrath said.

“As a result, financial year 2021 surpluses will lag the first year of this expansion, but it will create opportunities to reinvest future surpluses to maintain growth trajectories,” McGrath said.

Part of the allure of studying at ASU Prep Digital for older students and families with ties to ASU is that students have access to college-level classes through concurrent enrollment at both the school and the university. That gives them the opportunity to test out so-called career pathways, earn credit and ultimately save money on college tuition, Young said.

At another university-run online school, Texas Tech University's TTU K-12, the pandemic has also boosted enrollment.

“We are sitting at about 2,400 students. Of that 2,400, around 55 percent are domestic,” said Justin Louder, interim superintendent at the school. Student numbers fluctuate, as it is possible for students to enroll or graduate at any time, but Louder estimates around 300 full-time students enrolled because of the pandemic. Around 100 additional students who were close to graduating from high school came to TTU K-12 just to take a few classes.

"We’ve heard from a number of parents that have enrolled their children full-time," Louder said. "They weren’t comfortable with the online learning their local school was providing."

Similar to ASU Digital Prep, TTU K-12 recently started offering free faculty development training to teachers at other schools looking to improve their knowledge of online pedagogy.

The majority of TTU K-12’s new students are from Texas, but some new students hail from states as far away as Hawaii and Maine. Student enrollment surged in June and July, but the school continues to receive applications even now that most students have already started the new school year.

“As traditional school districts open up, some families are realizing their children are not as supported as they would like them to be and moving them to us,” Louder said. “We’re continuing to see new enrollments, but now it’s from families that waited to see what would happen at their local school.”

Despite gaining hundreds of new students, TTU K-12 hasn’t been pushed over capacity.

“Because our program allows students to work at their own pace, we anticipate fluctuations in enrollments each semester,” Louder said. “Although we didn’t anticipate such a large increase in students all at once, the students coming into our program are spread out over all grades, so it hasn’t overwhelmed our elementary, middle or high school staff.”

At TTU K-12, students pay per course, and increases in enrollment increase revenue. The institution hasn’t needed to increase current staffing or teaching levels to handle the extra students but has had to increase user capacity in its learning management system and proctoring solution, Louder said.

Realizing interest in the school was growing from pockets of Texas TTU K-12 hadn’t previously reached, the school increased its marketing in certain regions over the summer. But the school hasn’t faced any backlash from local school leaders worried about losing students to a competing institution.

"We are all just trying to find the best way to educate our students," Louder said. "We have always tried to be a partner to school districts. We know our program works for some kids, but not every kid. If the traditional education setting isn’t working, then we offer an alternative."

Whether students who joined TTU K-12 to ride out the disruption of the pandemic will stay for the long term is unknown at this point, Louder said.

“We believe that many of these students are probably short term,” he said. “We don’t expect the majority to stay through high school graduation -- we believe many will eventually return to their local school districts.”

TTU K-12 encourages students to stay for at least one full semester if they are studying with the school full-time, Louder said.

“We know that moving schools can be difficult on a kid, on their family, and we don’t want them to lose credits and have to repeat things,” he said.

While the students joining TTU K-12 have been fairly evenly distributed in age, Louder has noticed more inquiries from students close to finishing high school who are interested in attending Texas Tech University as undergraduates. Graduating from TTU K-12 doesn’t guarantee a place as a student at Texas Tech, but a streamlined admissions process exists for the school's students, said Louder.

Unlike ASU Prep Digital and TTU K-12, Stanford Online High School has not added any new students this year due to the pandemic. As a highly selective independent school, Stanford OHS caps the number of students it admits each year, said Tomohiro Hoshi, the head of school.

Stanford OHS has received more inquiries about its programs this year than usual. But it is too early to say whether this will translate to increased applications, Hoshi said. Unlike at ASU Prep Digital and TTU K-12, where students can begin studying at any point in the year, Stanford OHS has a fixed enrollment date that follows the traditional school year. Applications for 2021 recently opened and will close in early spring next year.

Even if applications surge this year, it is unlikely the school will rush to increase capacity. “We operate on a fixed five-year plan,” Hoshi said.

Few universities have ventured into the fully online K-12 market, but it is possible more institutions may move in this direction if they are already comfortable offering online teaching and learning at scale, said Bree Dusseault, practitioner in residence at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research unit at the University of Washington at Bothell.

For institutions that are not experienced in online education, however, the experience of switching to remote instruction in the spring may have dissuaded college leaders from entering the online K-12 space, said Dusseault. Educating children online is not an easy thing to do well, and the online modality is not a good fit for all students, she said.

A recent Gallup survey suggests the proportion of U.S. children not enrolled in a formal school and being taught at home -- possibly using online programs -- doubled this year, with one in every 10 families with school-age children now homeschooling. In some cases, families are clubbing together to homeschool their children, forming microschools or school pods.

Until more enrollment data become public, it is difficult to know how many students left traditional schools in favor of fully online schools this year, said Dusseault. An increase seems likely, but the scale is unknown, and the effect may just be temporary, she said. Andrew McEachin, senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp., agreed.

“Online schooling, often at online charter schools, is a growing but niche area,” McEachin said. He noted that studies in multiple states have found that the learning outcomes of students who attend virtual schools are lower than those of students who attend traditional schools -- a factor that has hampered the popularity of online institutions in the past.

“In some circumstances, students going to online schools were already struggling academically,” McEachin said. “But those students who are struggling are going to need more support rather than less -- they may struggle in an environment that is more independent.”

Virtual schools set up to be fully online may be better in the short term for some families than schools that are struggling to adapt to remote or hybrid instruction, McEachin said. But changing your child’s school comes with downsides, he said.

"You’re moving your child into a system that doesn’t know them," he said. "They may lose relationships they had."

Both McEachin and Dusseault agreed many students benefit from the social interactions they have with classmates in an in-person setting. They may struggle with the self-directed nature of online learning, particularly if they are very young. Neither predicts that the majority of families will want to continue with online learning after the danger of the pandemic has subsided.

Dusseault does predict, however, that traditional institutions in public school districts may face increasing competition from online institutions as more families shop around for the style of learning that best suits their needs.

“Perhaps a silver lining of this situation is that public schools will be more willing to experiment,” Dusseault said.

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