‘It’s here to stay’: SC online programs expect virtual learning to keep growing

Published: Sep. 30, 2021 at 9:39 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - South Carolina students have more ways to learn virtually now than ever before.

The growth follows a year in which many students across the country were forced to learn online, and in South Carolina, thousands are sticking with that style of learning.

“I think it’s here to stay, obviously. I’ve said that before COVID. We knew that virtual learning was increasing in number, and I expect that trend to continue,” Bradley Mitchell, the director of South Carolina’s Office of Virtual Education, said.

This year, dozens of school districts are offering full-time virtual programs, which are only available to students in their district.

All students in South Carolina are able to enroll in full-time virtual learning through the state’s several online, public charter schools. Middle and high school students can also take online classes in addition to their in-person classes at public, private, and home schools through VirtualSC, the state-sponsored virtual learning program.

All those online offerings are free for South Carolina students.

“I think the pandemic has brought virtual education to the forefront,” said Dr. Cherry Daniel, the CEO of South Carolina Virtual Charter School, one of the online, public charter schools.

Daniel said SCVCS did not know how many students to expect to enroll this year, with more traditional, brick-and-mortar schools across the state reopened for in-person learning.

“We saw a huge volume to come last year, but we were kind of surprised that it stayed, it remained. We didn’t lose many people. We gained some more people,” she said, adding that around 4,800 students have enrolled in each of the last two years.

In the 2019-2020 school year, the state’s largest online charter school, South Carolina Connections Academy, was teaching about 5,500 students. Executive Director Josh Kitchens said they capped enrollment at 6,500 students last year, anticipating an increased interest that they might not have the resources to accommodate.

That came to fruition, with about 16,000 students applying for those 6,500 slots.

This year, Kitchens said South Carolina Connections Academy decided to cap the enrollment again at 6,500 students, and this summer, more than 13,000 students applied for the 2021-2022 school year.

“Last year, we saw this big wave of enrollment happen in June and July,” he said. “This year, that wave happened in August. I think as students went back to school, and the cases continued to increase, we saw a lot of those students come to us.”

This year, two more online public charter schools have opened their virtual doors, including the South Carolina Preparatory Academy.

Executive Director Tracey Williams said the school has reached about 75% of its enrollment limit and is still accepting new students as it grows.

“People are more open to considering different choices of education now, and education is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor,” she said. “Many kids need many different things.”

VirtualSC, which operates through the SC Department of Education’s Office of Virtual Education, saw a large increase in enrollment from fall 2019, when 11,535 students were signed up for online classes, to fall 2020, when 14,916 students were enrolled.

That number has dropped this fall to 12,363 students, which is still more than the last pre-pandemic school year.

“With schools reopening this year, we expected the numbers would go back to a fairly normal year-to-year growth, which is pretty much what we experienced this year,” Mitchell said.

Leaders of these programs said they believe the exposure students had to online classes out of necessity last year did lead more students to realize that type of instruction works best for them.

“This is kind of the time where our virtual schools can really shine,” Daniel said.

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