GUTTENBERG, Iowa — Though Iowa Virtual Academy was growing already, applications for the online school really started flooding in during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Enrollment at the school, a program offered through Clayton Ridge Community School District, spiked from about 530 students last year to more than 900 this fall, according to Head of School Steven Hoff.

“(Families) were uncertain what the year was going to bring with their resident district,” he said. “They wanted the consistent education.”

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At both Iowa Virtual Academy and Mighty River Academy of Virtual Education in Prairie du Chien, Wis. — the area’s two virtual schools — campus officials reported significant increases in enrollment this fall.

In both cases, officials tied at least some of those gains to the pandemic and the uncertainties that families faced as they planned for the 2020-2021 school year. However, it is too early to say whether that will lead to long-term enrollment gains.

“It could go both ways, but we will do everything in our part to keep it from going … backwards,” Hoff said.

Seeking certainty

Mighty River Academy, while much smaller than the Clayton Ridge school, likewise has seen its enrollment numbers rise this year.

The school typically has about 22 to 25 full-time virtual students, a number that this year has increased to 44, plus another 19 part-time students who either attend Prairie du Chien schools or are home-schooled and take a class or two online, Principal Michael Liddell said.

“We more than doubled in enrollment, and that includes both around the state and our local district families,” he said.

Prior to the pandemic, Iowa Virtual Academy had been growing by about 30% per year. However, the health crisis also played an integral role in growth this year, Hoff said.

Many families switched to the virtual school seeking consistency as they faced uncertainty about the school year, he said. While many districts started their own virtual offerings this fall, the fact that Iowa Virtual Academy is designed as an online school also likely was a draw.

Liddell likewise pointed to anxieties about pandemic unknowns as driving enrollment increases.

“They see these spikes coming with the COVID cases in our little communities or counties, and I think that scares them a little bit,” Liddell said. “The safest route in their eyes is just to be online for now. That way they can control where their kids are, who their kids see.”

Sharie Keehner, of Guttenberg, enrolled three of her children in Iowa Virtual Academy this fall. Her children typically attend the Clayton Ridge district, but she said she wanted a virtual option for them because her husband has multiple sclerosis and is at higher risk of serious complications if he contracts COVID-19.

Keehner said the first weeks of virtual schooling were challenging, but now, her children seem to like it.

“It’s actually really good, to the point where the kids actually like it better because when they get a little stressed about work, they can take a little break,” she said.

Keehner said she plans to keep her children in Iowa Virtual Academy at least for the rest of the school year. Whether they continue beyond that depends on how the rest of the school year goes.

Keehner’s daughter Kayde said attending school virtually was different at first, but she has adjusted to it.

“I like it,” Kayde said. “I like how even though we’re not with people physically, we still get to interact with other people.”

Future projections

Even as some families are flocking to established virtual schools, the vast majority still are choosing to remain in their districts.

Dubuque Community Schools spokesman Mike Cyze said the number of students who live in the district but are enrolled in online schools has remained fairly stable compared to before the pandemic. He attributed that to the Dubuque district developing its own virtual option.

“It’s a small number for us already, so really, as we look at the previous year trajectory, it’s essentially stable,” Cyze said.

Hoff said that given his school’s growth before the pandemic, he doesn’t see enrollment taking a big step backward when COVID-19 cases subside. However, as brick-and-mortar schools return to normal, that could drive down demand for online schools in Iowa.

Liddell said that while he hopes Mighty River Academy picks up some extra students after the pandemic ends, he thinks enrollment eventually will fall back in line with the pre-COVID-19 levels as families migrate back to their school buildings.

“I think most people in a school district with their kids, they’re used to them coming in for the full school day … and I think people, they miss that,” Liddell said. “So they’re trying to figure out how to navigate this new water that they’re in and see where it goes.”