In the Guthrie Public School district, where Oklahoma City’s expanding suburban growth typically brings hundreds of new students each year, this current school year saw a reverse in that trend as enrollment dropped by 25 percent. 

The worsening COVID-19 pandemic appeared to send more than 600 Guthrie students to a virtual charter school.

“I’ve heard secondhand that some did not want to come to school with us because we had in-school instruction five days a week,” Superintendent Mike Simpson said. “I heard some say they weren’t going to send (students) to us because we required masks.”

Virtual charter schools saw huge enrollment gains this past year, especially Epic, the state’s largest virtual charter school system that increased enrollment from 17,106 to 35,731 at its virtual-only school, according to the latest enrollment figures.

Data from the state Department of Education shows the districts with the largest number of students who transferred to a virtual charter in August were districts that held in-person learning from the beginning of the school year. 

“Some of the parents that were attending a school district that was marching right back to school in-person actually chose to leave (for a virtual charter) because they didn’t want to go back in-person,” said State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, speaking with The Frontier during a recent virtual forum.

In Moore, which began the year with in-person class, 890 students transferred to a virtual charter school between Aug. 2 and Sept. 15, the largest number of August and September virtual school transfers in the state, according to data from the state Department of Education. 

Lawton and Mustang, two districts that also started the year with some form of in-person learning, each had more than 600 students transfer to virtual charters in August and September.

In Norman, where the district had originally announced in August it would hold in-person classes, 848 students transferred to a virtual charter school. 

In the Oklahoma City and Tulsa school districts, where each serves tens of thousands of students and conducted virtual classes at the start of the year, fewer than 300 students transferred to virtual charter schools.

Hofmeister said she expects a large number of those virtual charter transfer students to return to their previous district next school year.

She also predicted significant growth in kindergarten enrollment, especially as many parents decided not to enroll their child in kindergarten or pre-kindergarten this year.

“Where we saw a loss of students, 75 percent were in those early pre-K and kindergarten years,” Hofmeister said.

In Guthrie, Superintendent Simpson said he has already started to see a return of some students. Since October, more than 100 Guthrie students who transferred to a virtual charter school have returned, Simpson said.

“We’ve especially seen a migration of our secondary students at the beginning of the second semester go from virtual back to traditional in-person learning,” Simpson said.

Further reading/listening:

Listen Frontier podcast: How a first-year teacher navigated a semester unlike any other

After graduating from the University of Central Oklahoma last May, John Creter was hired to teach social studies and geography at Capitol Hill Middle School in south Oklahoma City. But as he prepared for his first year as a teacher, the COVID-19 pandemic presented a challenge, unlike anything he had expected.

‘Epic is prepared for this, our district is not’: As districts work to reopen, parents flee to virtual schools

Epic virtual charter school has its critics, but as the COVID-19 pandemic intensified last summer, many parents viewed the school as a better option than their own district’s virtual program.