With uncertainty and mounting economic hardship, school districts in the Pittsburgh area are reporting relatively steady enrollment for the new school year, although the demand for online-only education appears to be increasing in districts and among cyber charter schools.
School reopenings have been a hot topic in southwest Pennsylvania and across the country, and some local parenting groups have organized protests against their school districts.
But school administrators say they haven’t seen a significant change in school choice.
“We have seen a movement in our student population, both from and to parish and charter schools,” said Dr. Theodore Dwyer, director of data, research, evaluation and accountability at Pittsburgh Public Schools, the largest school district in the area. “This is normal at the beginning of the school year. It doesn’t seem more or less than what we’ve seen in the past. “
The districts will not officially report the enrollment dates for the new school year until October 1st. Initial experiences from several public school districts and private schools suggest that some students are less enrolled in certain student populations, but pandemic losses do not appear to be severe overall.
Tammy Wolicki, superintendent of Westmoreland County’s Hempfield Area School District, said the district’s five elementary schools had seen a significant drop in kindergarten enrollments. She attributes the decline to the decision by the school authorities to switch to a half-day kindergarten, which prompts parents to look for all-day childcare options.
Kiski School, a private boys’ boarding school in Westmoreland County, reports a decline in enrollments, largely due to a decrease in the number of international students attending this year. “In general, we expect enrollment to drop by 5 or 6 percent,” said Christopher Brueningsen, school principal. “That’s probably better than the boarding school average. “
The region’s Catholic schools are among those that have had to adapt the most. They were addressing funding issues and difficulties even before the arrival of COVID-19. The economic fallout from the pandemic accelerated the closure of several Catholic schools in the area in the spring. However, since then the student population has stabilized. “While we are stable from school to school, we have lost enrollment due to these closings,” said Michelle Peduto, headmistress for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.
The pandemic has forced a profound shift towards students studying from home using an internet connection.
Beaver County-based PA Cyber Charter School reports a surge in applications this summer. “We typically start with around 9,500 students on the first day of school,” said Brian Hayden, the school’s CEO. “We had 11,000 students in early August this year.”
The school, whose enrollment is limited to 11,677 students, estimated an additional 2,000 students were on a waiting list for the new school year. Hayden attributes the rise to a small but significant number of families across the Commonwealth who are wary of personal instructions during the pandemic.
All counties in the region offer some distance learning options that are recommended by state health and education authorities. And many students have signed up.
In the Greater Latrobe School District, Superintendent Georgia Teppert said 13 percent of the district’s 3,500 students will study online this year. In the Hempfield Area School District, 12 percent of students will be remote. At the Kiski School, according to Brueningsen, 25 percent of the students are taught remotely. Pittsburgh Catholic schools estimate that 15 to 20 percent of students will study online.
All Pittsburgh Public Schools classes are held online for at least the first nine weeks of the semester.
Some administrators speculate that a mix of in-person and online learning could be the standard model for education even after COVID is under control.
“I think the virtual is with us all the time now,” said Peduto of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. “I’m not sure what this will look like across the diocese, but I would think we will have the option in the long term.”
“We don’t think so [online] will replace personal learning, ”said Brueningsen. “But we are certainly thinking ahead of how there could be a place for certain components of virtual learning in the future. I think that will be the case for all schools. “