Steadily declining public school enrollment took a sharp dip over the past two years, propelled in part by the uncertainty during the pandemic as well as masking policies and conflicts over education content.
In Lycoming County, public school enrollment has declined by roughly 1,000 students over the past five years, with some districts seeing their largest decreases over the past two years. The only exception is Montgomery Area School District, which has recorded an enrollment increase each year since 2017.
High school senior Lily Wimer contemplated leaving Loyalsock Township School District for years, but it was the March 2020 pandemic upheaval that pushed her to make the transition to cyber school.
Previously a cheerleader and active in social groups at the school, Wimer and her mother, Marianne Beane agree that she has been more independent and confident during the past year and a half.
“My school (Reach Cyber Charter School) puts in effort into giving me a lot more resources,” Wimer said, “stuff I would never have access to otherwise.”
Wimer is not alone in her move out of the standard schooling system. Pennsylvania’s 14 cyber schools saw record enrollment after 2020, increasing from 38,000 students across the state to over 60,000 students.
Moving away from standard schooling
Brian Hayden, CEO of PA Cyber Charter School, said the 20-year-old cyber academy saw a sharp enrollment increase after the pandemic began. The school has an enrollment cap of 11,677 and is roughly 100 students below max capacity, Hayden said.
Reasons for the switch varied among families, according to Hayden, who added that the school does intake surveys with each family when they enroll. For many, it ranged from a desire for stable learning schedules during a time of classroom uncertainty to frustration over masking requirements.
“We got people on both sides,” Hayden said. “Parents who didn’t want to mask … and those who did.”
In Lycoming County, an already downward enrollment trend was exacerbated over the past two years, specifically in the Jersey Shore, Montoursville and Muncy districts.
According to Jersey Shore Superintendent Brian Ulmer, the most recent exodus was due to COVID and how districts handled it.
“Much of this was due to COVID. Either parents were not OK with children being required to wear masks or parents wanted to reduce their children’s exposure,” Ulmer said.
The district created its own cyber educational platform in an attempt to bring students back to the district. “(We)added staff to it to recruit, monitor and engage with families in our program,” he said.
In Muncy, declining enrollment is due to fewer students coming into kindergarten and is “attributed to below average birth rates,” according to Superintendent Andrew Seese.
Seese added that the district is continuing to advertise the schools’ education and extracurricular options to help bring in more students.
Requests for comment from other county school districts were not returned.
For Wimer, the reason was complex. On one hand, she was pushed into virtual learning when school buildings shut their doors in March of 2020 due to the rising COVID-19 pandemic. But soon she found that learning from home opened her up to new opportunities and resources she may not have had within the district.
“I realized I have a lot more time and resources to look at,” Wimer said. “Classes that I wanted to take weren’t available because there were too many people at the public school.”
But it’s not just students who are looking for alternative options within area districts. Wimer’s mother, Marianne Beane, had been a teacher in the Williamsport Area School District for seven years before she quit her job in September of 2021.
For Beane, who has now launched her own business consultation company, the added pressures of the teacher’s workload during the pandemic compounded an already stressful job to a place that was not sustainable.
“I was not able to meet the demands timewise and still have quality of life,” Beane said. “I miss my students. I don’t miss the impossible demands on my time.”
While Beane added that the district did the best it could to prepare teachers for the hybrid model, it’s hard to compete with cyber academies that have been dedicated to a purely virtual learning structure for years.
At PA Cyber, which was founded in 2000, the school provides computers, printers, internet subsidies and tech support to each of its students, Hayden said.
“They looked at us and said, “Oh, they know how to teach online… I want to send my students there,” Hayden said.
Alternatives to cyber schooling
Some local school districts, such as Williamsport Area and Loyalsock Township, already have virtual academies, which Beane said is helpful for students who want to graduate within the district.
She added that an independent cyber schooling model doesn’t always work for every student, especially those who are not self-motivated, who thrive from working with their peers around them.
But it wasn’t just cyber schools that saw a boost in enrollment over the past two years.
Chef Co-Op, one of the region’s largest homeschooling co-ops, also saw an enrollment increase, according to Linda Williams, one of the committee trustees.
“Our homeschool co-op has seen around 55 families fluctuating over the years, but, due to COVID, our numbers have increased to 73 families,” Williams said. “We have reached maximum capacity for several of our classes and have had to close many on the day of registration, which has never happened before.”
The co-op meets for classes one day each week and then students work independently for the remaining days. According to Williams, the 250 students come from Bloomsburg, Selinsgrove, Liberty and all of the districts in between.
Williams added that over the past two years they welcomed some families who were trying homeschooling for the first time, “having pulled their kids out of public school for different reasons such as masking mandates, dissatisfaction with the public school system and finding remote learning was just not working for their students.”
The ‘high school experience’
While a trend away from public schooling may be concerning for some districts, Hayden said he doesn’t expect the recent year’s trend to be permanent. Some changes may stay, such as at-home learning during sickness or snow days, but he expects a variety of students who left the school during the pandemic to settle back into standard learning as things return to normal.
“I honestly think that when this pandemic has passed us… that Pennsylvania families are going to more than likely want their kids in a traditional environment,” he said.
However, he cautioned school districts to consider that students often don’t choose cyber schooling because they want to learn from home. Instead, it’s usually due to a dissatisfaction with something inside the district that has encouraged them to look for alternative options.
“The first thing the parents decide is that they want to leave the school,” Hayden said. “The actual school seems to lose sight of that. They think they are leaving for a cyber school… in reality, they are leaving because they don’t like the school and will then look for other options.”
Wimer doesn’t expect to return to her public school district. As she is finishing her senior year, she already is looking to her future career opportunities.
While she was criticized by many of her friends for missing out on the “high school experience,” Wimer is excited about the opportunities ahead without the pressures of walking into her high school classroom each day.
“Every day I was there I was trying to fit in,” she said. “It helps me get out of the mindset that I needed to peak in high school.”