ST. GEORGE — The upcoming school year is expected to set a new record for total online enrollment, Officials with the Statewide Online Education Program expect the increase of online instruction offered by districts in Utah will fuel that growth.
Since 2011, the state of Utah has offered public high school education through the online program. Students in grades 6-12 can earn credit through full-time or part-time participation in online courses available through several providers, including Utah Online School, Utah Virtual Academy and more.
Program specialist Cory Kanth said the number of students and the total credits requested have been growing since the program began, and she expects another year of significant growth moving forward.
“We saw record enrollment all of last year,” Kanth said. “We actually had to open up special late start sessions in the spring of 2020 when the pandemic started, and we’ve been seeing an increase right from that point.”
Utah Online School, housed in the Washington County School District, serves as a microcosm for larger statewide program. The online school began in 2004 with elementary-level courses and grew to incorporate higher-level courses as state funding expanded the organization’s role.
Now it’s one of six primary providers for the statewide program, offering accredited courses to K-12 students throughout the state. The online school offers full-time options to complete entire grade levels or part-time enrollment to participate in courses not offered at some traditional schools.
Director Laura Belnap, who also serves on the Utah State Board of Education, said the pandemic definitely contributed to increased interest in online options, helping Utah Online reach an all-time high of 5,585 students in 2020.
“It was a total influx of parents and students coming into Utah Online,” Belnap said. “One reason for that is we’ve been in existence for 15 years. Families that were already in our system didn’t miss a beat because of the pandemic, and those new people coming in – and there were a lot of first time online users – we were able to pick them up and take care of them.”
Total enrollment in the online public school rose about 57% from October 2019 to October 2020, even as many districts throughout the state developed virtual instruction or entire online school programs in response to the pandemic.
As a result, Belnap said she expects something closer to a 20% increase when classes open for Fall Semester of 2021. She attributed the slower expected growth in part to the massive shift the pandemic prompted last year and the number of online programs that will be continuing for the foreseeable future.
In fact, comparing growth year-to-year reveals that the biggest jump in total enrollment for Utah Online occurred between 2018 and 2019. That year, the student population practically doubled from 1,779 to 3,557.
“Some of that increase would be that we had several private schools that joined our school,” Belnap said. “The growth was also due to interest in the school’s many facets.”
The expansion of Utah Online mirrors the development of the statewide program, which saw it’s biggest jump in the 2019-20 school year, a 39% increase in enrollment followed by another year of substantial, albeit smaller growth of12%.
The 2021-22 school year may be more similar to its predecessor in terms of growth. One of the larger online charter schools, Utah Virtual Academy, will return to its pre-pandemic enrollment cap. Kanth said that may lead to parents returning their students to their local brick-and-mortar schools or increased enrollment in established programs, like Utah Online or Canyons Virtual High.
Online school is supposed to provide a more accessible, flexible and needs-based education, Belnap said. Several districts around the state, including San Juan, Ogden and Granite, rely on online schools to offer failing students the opportunity to retake courses and recover credits.
For Utah Online, courses open for fall semester on Aug. 9. The first official day of fall semester is Aug. 12, in conjunction with the start date for traditional schools in the Washington County School District. More information can be found at the Utah Online School website.
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