At least 11 new online schools set to serve students next year

Update: This story originally listed the Jefferson County School District’s online school alongside others set to continue their programs into next school year. A district employee said Thursday that will not happen.  

At least 11 Idaho school districts are set to either start up or continue their fledgling online schools next school year, according to numbers from the State Department of Education.

Online learning programs popped up in public schools this school year in efforts to educate kids remotely amid a pandemic. In January, a handful of districts signaled plans to let their online programs live on, post pandemic.

The latest SDE numbers show which districts have taken steps to do that, including three with new online schools set for 2021-22:

  • The Boise School District’s Boise Online School will serve both elementary and secondary learners throughout the district.
  • The Lakeland district’s Lakeland Online Academy will serve local students in grades K-12, according to information from the SDE and the district’s website.
  • The Madison School District’s Madison Online Elementary School will expand existing online programs for local secondary students to students in grades 4-6.

Each of these districts, which have provided online learning in various forms during the pandemic, join at least eight others that have already started online schools in response to COVID-19 — and plan to keep them going next school year. These include:

The surge in online offerings marks a changeup in the state’s virtual K-12 landscape. Online schools typically operate as charter schools in Idaho. An influx of thousands of students into the Oneida School District’s Idaho Home Learning Academy in recent years has worked against that trend.

And the pandemic has exacerbated it, as more districts across the state extend their online offerings.

“It has been a whole new world for us,” Blackfoot School District Superintendent Brian Kress said in January of local demand for remote learning. At one point this school year, some 300 kids had enrolled in the district’s new online school, bolstering enrollment as districts across the state reported declines.

Kress said demand has fallen even further in recent weeks. The district is allowing families to enroll but could still discontinue the program.

Still, the pandemic’s assault on in-person learning exposed needs districts weren’t aware of, several local leaders have said. Both Boise spokesman Dan Hollar and Idaho Falls spokeswoman Margaret Wimborne pointed to parent-interest surveys as determining factors for extending remote offerings into next school year.

Other factors are also at play, including enrollments and funding. Enrollment is important in Idaho because it impacts the carving up of some $2 billion earmarked annually for K-12. Districts that lost students to online schools during the pandemic also lost money, since state funding flows to public schools regardless of whether students sign up for online learning or show up in-person.

Madison assistant superintendent Randy Lords said that reality played into his district’s decision to expand and extend online offerings: “We didn’t want to lose kids.”

The pandemic also exposed a local population of homeschoolers who could supplement their learning with the district’s online coursework, Lords said. “We can put together an online curriculum, but provide some assistance with research-based curriculum and resources to help.”

Lords hopes the added resources will improve learning outcomes for local homeschoolers who enroll — and for students who may not be ready to return to school in-person come fall.

Lakeland leaders have also augmented news of their new online school with an emphasis on improving learning outcomes for kids learning from home. “We believe that this platform will meet our high standards for student achievement and parent expectations and provide flexibility for our families,” a trifold about Lakeland Online Academy reads.

Student achievement has been an area of focus for online schools — and their critics — for years. The concern: Idaho’s online schools typically struggle in terms of student achievement compared to their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

Time will tell how achievement fares at the new batch of district-run online schools. As new schools, the SDE will track their academic achievement, from standardized test scores to high school graduation rates. Holler said Boise will track a number of additional measures, including attendance, report cards and student participation and engagement.

Low performance of the state’s online school’s hasn’t stopped families from enrolling in recent years, including in Oneida, where local leaders have grown their virtual school into the state’s largest, despite consistently low test scores.

Another challenge for districts is gauging local demand and staffing teachers. Despite enrolling hundreds of students earlier this school year, enrollment at Blackfoot’s online school declined by spring, likely due to the state’s vaccine rollout, Kress said. And while districts like Oneida and Snake River have opened up enrollment to students from across the state, others will keep services local.

Some local leaders point to one advantage for the online startups: a year’s worth of hybrid and online learning in districts across the state.

“Several of the teachers who are currently teaching online will continue to teach online next year,” Wimborne said. “We are planning for about 5 teachers, who will teach combo classes.”

Enrollment at Boise’s online school currently stands at only 69 for elementary and 94 for secondary for 2021-2022, Hollar said. Enrollment numbers there will determine how many teachers the school ultimately staffs and trains for online teaching positions.

Boise’s overall enrollment was 23,857 this school year, a decline of over 1,600 kids from a year earlier, according to SDE numbers.

About Devin Bodkin

Reporter Devin Bodkin covers education issues in East Idaho. He is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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