Like many Oklahoma school districts, Edmond Public Schools plans a return to class this fall with both in-person instruction and the option of a virtual program for families concerned about the continued spread of COVID-19. 

But April Dinger isn’t excited about either option.

“There is no reason for my children to go back to school if the virus is still around,” said Dinger, an Edmond mother of three.

“But we did the district’s virtual program when they closed the first time (in March) and it was absolutely terrible.”

Dinger has already enrolled her children in Epic Virtual Charter school, the online public school that has grown to more than 32,000 students in less than a decade, which includes a blended program of in-person and online education.

But the virtual school could see its largest single-year enrollment increase at a time when in-person learning at many school districts is in doubt.

“We are definitely seeing COVID related enrollment,” said Shelly Hickman, an assistant superintendent at Epic, where enrollment topped 1,000 new students each day last week.

Hickman said the current enrollment growth rate projects a 57 percent increase this coming school year, which would easily make it the state’s largest school system.

The Epic charter school office in Oklahoma City. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Epic is the largest of six public virtual charter schools in the state.

Virtual charter schools have drawn criticism from some district leaders as millions in state funding has followed students to virtual schools.

Epic has been the subject of an investigation by state law enforcement concerning enrollment figures and the use of a private management company, which is in the process of fighting a state audit

Even some parents who feel forced to choose Epic admit they have concerns about its management of money and the impact on the traditional school system.

“I hate diverting funds from my local public school but what are my other options besides sacrificing my family’s health?” said Leslie Bonebreak, a Moore parent to two elementary-age children.

Bonebreak said she didn’t have a positive opinion of Epic but friends who have Epic students say good things about the school.

Brittany Martin, another Moore parent who does not want to send her kindergarten son to in-person class, said she had reluctantly considered Epic.

“I’m not necessarily in favor of charter school funding and I don’t want my district to lose the funding for my child,” Martin said.

Martin said Epic would give her son the opportunity to transfer back to Moore schools if the health situation improved. But she recently learned that her district will allow parents to choose a virtual program with a chance to return to class every nine weeks.

“He will also be connected with a teacher (online) who would be his teacher if he returned, so I’m feeling pretty comfortable with it right now,” Martin said.

Southmoore High School in Moore, Oklahoma. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

School district leaders have long recognized the growth in online education and some have implemented their own virtual programs, although few have aggressively promoted it to all students.

But districts are now trying to play catch-up with virtual schools that have established online systems in place and were growing even before the pandemic.

“I think COVID is forcing districts to look at the virtual model out of necessity but I think it raises the question about what should virtual education look like even after this,” said Brent Bushey, executive director of the Oklahoma Public School Resource Center, a nonprofit working with districts on establishing long-term virtual programs.

In March, the state Board of Education ordered all school buildings closed and for districts to adopt distance learning plans, a response to the coronavirus pandemic that was beginning to take hold in Oklahoma.

Districts deployed an assortment of plans, ranging from teachers recording lectures on YouTube to students receiving a stack of worksheets.

For some parents, that unsuccessful pivot to online school instilled a lack of confidence that a virtual option this school year would be any better.

“In Edmond (virtual school) is such a new thing but Epic is established, so I trust that they have it together,” Dinger said.

“Epic is prepared for this, our district is not.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister talks to attendees at a town hall in Muskogee on Monday, Dec. 12, 2016. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said school districts have had enough time to develop more meaningful virtual programs for the upcoming year.

But in a state where many regions lack broadband internet access and some households are without computers, Hofmeister acknowledges that virtual school is not yet an option for everyone.

“We have not in any way reached the level of connectivity that is equitable across the state but we are not giving up on that,” Hofmeister added.

Another advantage virtual charters have over local districts is the ability for students to use a portion of their state funding on extra curricular activities.

Dinger, the Edmond mother, said the use of her child’s state funding was a factor in her decision.

“We are going to take kung fu classes through Zoom,” Dinger said.

Thad Bonebreak’s mother is considering enrolling him and his brother in Epic Virtual Charter school, instead of attending Moore Public Schools this fall. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Bonebreak, the mother of two Moore students, said her district cut its gifted and talented program two years ago, but she planned to use Epic’s learning fund for enrichment opportunities.

Teachers are also considering a move to virtual charters because of coronavirus concerns.

“I have three different high risk factors and my district is not making accommodations,” said Lisa, who teaches at a large Oklahoma City-area high school and whose last name isn’t being used because she didn’t want to jeopardize her employment.

Lisa, who has taught for 22 years, is in the process of applying to Epic because she doesn’t feel comfortable teaching in a classroom with students during the pandemic.

Her district plans to ask parents not to send their children to school if they have a fever, but Lisa doesn’t believe that is enough.

“Parents already send their kids dosed up on Tylenol to hide a fever, what makes us think that won’t happen now?” Lisa said.

“I will shield my students from bullets, I will shield them from a tornado, but I will not give my life for a virus that we know is out there and we can stop.”

Hickman, the assistant superintendent at Epic, said they are looking for more teachers to meet increased demand.

“We are still hiring teachers for the school year and that’s really what we are mainly focused on right now,” Hickman said.

“We already expected another year of growth but the pandemic has caused a lot more families to consider us.”