HARRISBURG — Parents concerned with the health and safety plans produced by their local school districts may not have an easy time transferring their children to cyber charter schools which are at or near their enrollment capacity, online school operators told lawmakers today.

“Pennsylvania’s 14 public cyber charter schools have seen a record number of inquiries this summer from families seeking an alternative to their assigned school district,” PA Cyber CEO Brian Hayden told members of the House Education Committee.

Hayden said PA Cyber is already at the maximum enrolled allowed under its state charter — 11,600 students — and has a waiting list of prospective students. 

The school has been fielding 1,000 calls a week from families interested in an alternative to traditional public schools, he said.

The state's cyber charter schools receive public funding through tuition payments paid by local school districts based on the number of students enrolled in the cyber school. Traditional public schools have long complained that the cyber schools get more in tuition than it costs them to educate students online, prompting an increasing number of traditional schools to launch their own online programs.

Hayden added that as schools across the state scrambled in March to shift from in-person to remote learning for all students, schools like his, and the students enrolled in them, saw little change in the way they operated.

“Many of our parents told us how much they appreciated that we were able to maintain full-day planned instruction for the remainder of the year; they said that consistency and normalcy was so important when so many other aspects of their lives were suddenly changed,” he said.

Hayden said that most school years, his school begins at the academic year with an enrollment of about 9,500 students, but due to increased interest due to pandemic school closings, they’ve already enrolled their maximum number of students.

Rich Jensen, chief executive officer for Agora Cyber School, said that his school is still accepting new students. However, Jensen said school operators would want to be cautious about expanding, when asked by state Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford County, whether cyber schools would be in a position to handle more students if the state lifted their enrollment caps.

Jensen said school operators would be worried about taking on too many more students, out of concern about buying equipment and adding staff only to have the enrollment bubble pop if a COVID-19 vaccine hits the market.

With their own enrollments at or close to the maximum, cyber school operators have been offering assistance to traditional public schools as they try to refine their own online class designs, said Jessica Hickernell, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

“We know that PA's 14 cyber charter schools will not be able to accommodate every student who applies, so they will continue to offer their assistance to school districts who want to improve their virtual programs,” she said.

While the cyber school operators say they are dealing with unprecedented demand, the state's private schools don’t know how their enrollments will be impacted when classes resume, said Gary Niels, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools.

“All of our schools are on eggshells,” he said. On the one hand, if the local public schools opt to offer remote learning instead of in-person classes, the private schools could be flooded with applicants, but on the other, if the private schools themselves feel like they need to offer online classes, they could face an exodus of students, he said.

A second day of hearings on the issues related to reopening schools is planned for Wednesday before the same House Education Committee.

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