West Ada virtual school enrollment jumps after Tuesday board meeting

Gretchen Caserotti sat down with her two elementary-aged children after the West Ada school board meeting on Tuesday night and made a plan to move school online this fall.

Caserotti had been chewing on the idea all summer. Enrolling in West Ada’s online-only school option would give the family more control over their exposure to coronavirus, and more stability than the possibility that kids could move in and out of in-person classes this fall.

But if they enrolled in the Virtual School House, Caserotti’s sons wouldn’t have any guarantee they could return to their same spots in district special programs. And enrolling online felt almost like a betrayal.

Caserotti waited through the school district’s four-hour reopening meeting Tuesday night, looking for a definitive plan from the district that would tell her family what to expect for the first few weeks, maybe the first month, of fall.

She didn’t get one. West Ada voted to open online-only, but the plan only guarantees that format for the first week of the semester. The second week of school could take a different tack.

“It didn’t give us enough confidence in what to expect going back to school,” Caserotti said of the meeting.

Running up against a deadline, Caserotti’s family made the decision that night to enroll for the online school.

In the next day, more than 1,200 other students did the same.

Enrollment in the online school jumped 41 percent in the 30 or so hours between the start of the school board meeting and the deadline for applying for West Ada’s virtual school house on Wednesday.

All told 4,279 of West Ada’s 40,000 students enrolled in the Virtual School House option, about 10 percent of the district.

Virtual School House enrollment  before Tuesday’s meeting: 3,032
Virtual School House enrollment by the end of 4/26: 4,279

West Ada was the last of Idaho’s large districts to decide how it will reopen this fall, after pushing the start of school back two weeks to Sept. 8.

On Tuesday, district trustees debated whether to open schools online or with some form of blended learning. They ultimately voted to open schools online, but only solidified that plan for the week of Sept. 8. The following week students could move back to a partially in-person schedule if the regional health authority says that’s OK.

Stability was a central part of the debate in Tuesday’s meeting. Board member Philip Neuhoff proposed the district should open for a guaranteed two weeks in virtual learning in part so parents and teachers could prepare.

“We have to tell people we’re going to start somewhere,” Neuhoff said. “…I think we have to have something concrete that teachers can plan for when they go back to work.”

After some debate, Neuhoff changed that proposal to one week of guaranteed distance-learning, which allowed the district the ability to pivot to a blend of online and in-person more quickly, should Central District Health decide that it’s safe to allow kids back in schools. A Central District Health official hinted to board members Tuesday that returning in person might be possible by early September if case numbers continue to improve.

“I would like to see students back in the classroom as soon as possible,” said Trustee Rene Ozuna.

Caserotti says she respects West Ada’s board and doesn’t envy the tough decisions that trustees have to make for the district. But her family had to make a decision as well. They opted for certainty.

“You just can’t do this week by week,” Caserotti said. “It’s too much to ask of anybody involved in this.”

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