DIGITAL EXCLUSIVE: Pandemic causes enrollment to fluctuate in local private schools

Digital Originals

CENTRAL ILLINOIS (WMBD) — Virtual learning has caused enrollment in local schools to spike, and decrease in others.

At the beginning of the school year, Illinois was in Phase 1 of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s “Restore Illinois” reopening plan. It was put in place as a direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which began in March 2020.

As a result of that plan, public schools were forced to close their doors and implement remote learning in P-12 classrooms.

For the Illinois Virtual School (IVS), this was no different from normal operations, but the increase in students certainly was.

In August 2020, the school saw a 107% increase in enrollment according to Director Kip Pygman.

“This most recent fall, we had 2,100 enrollments. Typically, we average around 1,000 enrollments.”

Kip Pygman

The school had 2,530 enrollments during the summer of 2019, but in the summer of 2020, it had 5,058 enrollments — a 101% student enrollment increase. However, summer is the busiest part of the year for the school because traditionally, it serves the largest amount of students during that time.

Administrators hired 30 additional part-time teachers to help educate the newly enrolled students. Pygman said this was the greatest challenge for the school at the time. The hiring process needed to be taken slowly in order to ensure teachers met the standards for online learning.

“We could do it as quickly as possible, but certainly not at the expense of bringing on-board an instructor that wouldn’t meet the quality demands that we have for our online teachers,” Pygman said.

The school uses what they call an “on the bench” spreadsheet. Dozens of teachers who have expressed interest in teaching with IVS and have already completed some requirements in order to be onboarded, or hired, are listed there, he said.

“For example, before we would even consider interviewing a teacher to teach with us, we ask that they complete an entry-level online course that basically covers the fundamentals of online teaching and learning,” Pygman said. “That way, they have a little bit of skin in the game, and we can assess how serious they are for teaching with us. If they’re not interested in teaching the course, then as a candidate, that is maybe not a good fit.”

School officials also used a unique method of onboarding the new teachers. Instead of training them individually, the school made efforts to train them as a group.

“The onboarding of this group was more of a cohort or a community of new teachers,” Pygman said. “Instead of doing our onboarding process, kind of siloed, we had them all go through it together. Along the way, they would video conference with one another, and you have a new teacher/mentor … that’s kind of their trusted guide on the side, to help onboard them, but also [to] help coach them along the way.”

Pygman said IVS used to be the only official state-supplemented virtual school. In January, the state offered parents the option of multiple virtual schools, which in turn cut all of IVS’s public funding — a 40% loss to the school’s operating budget.

“There was a solution readily available to serve and support our communities that was built on taxpayer dollars for the last 20 years that, unfortunately, was not leveraged by our state’s leaders,” he said.

After losing public funding at the beginning of the 2021 calendar year, IVS needed to raise tuition fees and lower teacher pay just to stay in operation. However, Pygman expects to retain the majority of the teachers and students.

“There are going to be some families still that will not feel safe returning on campus, and as a result, are going to need that online learning option, and we might serve as an option,” he said.

In McLean County, numbers in private schools have jumped significantly. Normal’s Calvary Christian Academy Head of School Dale Lempa said enrollment increased by approximately 40 students, or what he called a “strong surge.”

“We do tend to grow year to year, but 40-50 new kids all in one year like that, that’s more than usual,” Lempa said.

From preschool to 12th grade, the school has 265 students currently enrolled. The increase this year was due to the school offering instruction five days a week, he said.

Because of the increase, the school needed to add a second Kindergarten classroom. Other than that, no other changes needed to be made Lempa said.

Looking forward to the 2021-2022 school year, he said the school expects to retain most of the students they gained this academic year.

“I think they have kind of tasted and seen what we have here, and they’ve signed on for another year.”

Dale Lempa

Over at Bloomington’s Central Catholic High School, Director of Admissions and Marketing Scott Vogel said the school saw an increase, but not nearly as large as Calvary Christian.

Vogel reported eight students transferred in at the start of the school year, but three of those students have since left to attend area schools. He felt the increase was due to the pandemic and parents seeking schools with in-person learning.

“I do feel that the pandemic influenced our enrollment numbers; it’s not normal to be this active in enrollment during the school year. Everyone who transferred in mentioned the fact that we were conducting in-person learning was a factor in their decision to come to Central Catholic. Two of the three who transferred out had chosen to learn remotely while here,” he said in an email.

Bloomington School District 87 Superintendent Barry Reilly said although many have chosen private school for the academic year, he anticipates that will change in the fall.

“We were like many districts across the state that saw slight drops in enrollment due to the pandemic. Some students chose to homeschool their children rather than engage in remote learning, while some others decided to enroll children in private schools that provided in-person attendance early in the fall.  We anticipate many of these children will return to our district in the fall,” he said in an email.

In Peoria County, the changes were not as drastic at the elementary and high school level.

Preschool numbers have been down significantly for Peoria’s catholic schools. Dr. Sharon Weiss, Superintendent of Schools for the Catholic Diocese of Peoria reported numbers were down more than 24% compared to previous years.

“In our analysis, the decrease was mostly focused on families who did not want to pay for preschool fees if the school only offered preschool instruction a few days a week as opposed to a public preschool program where families could enroll their ages three and four children in full-time preschool/daycare,” she said in an email.

As a whole, the Catholic Diocese of Peoria covers 26 counties, 17,000 square miles in Central Illinois and 42 diocesan elementary and secondary schools. For the 2020-2021 school year, Weiss said the diocese lost 193 students in the high schools and 619 in the elementary schools for a total of 812 students.

Development Director for St. Jude Catholic School Jill Lindsey said her school did not see an increase this year, but a decrease due to homeschooling.

“Several of our families chose to homeschool for the year. In order to provide the safest environment for our current students we did not accept new enrollments once the school year started to allow for appropriate social distancing in our classrooms,” she said in an email.

At the Chesteron Academy for the Sacred Heart in Peoria, Administrative Assistant Erica Higgins said the school did not see an increase, but it was an expected result, she said, due to many of their students being homeschooled to begin with.

Concordia Lutheran School Principal Paul Thompson reported a “slight decrease” in enrollment. However, at the Montessori School of Peoria, Kate Meredith Cox, the co-head of the school, said the school lost approximately 15 students due to safety concerns.

In Peoria’s south side, Principal of Christ Lutheran School Terry Mooney reported the school lost close to 25 students due to the pandemic but gained just as many due to in-person learning. However, the South Side Christian Academy (SSCA), in the former KC Knights of Columbus Hall on Hill Street, had the opposite problem.

Board member and Business Director Cassie Meiss said SSCA saw a 25% increase in enrollment. This is due to the school adding a kindergarten class, she said, as well as parents wanting their children to learn in person.

The school had to turn away at least a dozen students.

“We honestly could not take them all. We don’t have the room in our building.”

Cassie meiss

Meiss said other deciding factors were the lack of resources at the school; specifically, special education, which the school does not currently offer. However, the school was able to hire more RTI (response to intervention) aides.

“We knew going into this that we were going to need to have more aides to make up for the fact that our students lost their most important learning time of the year last year due to the pandemic,” Meiss said.

Meiss feels virtual learning is detrimental to students.

“Especially kindergarten through sixth grade, it is critical, in my opinion, that they’d be in school. That’s really where they need that teacher interaction,” she said.

Due to the careful selection process, the school is confident it will retain the students they picked up with the enrollment increase.

“Because we knew our limits, because we knew what we could handle, because we knew who we could educate and who we could not and what we had room for and who we did not, yes, we’ll be able to retain those students,” Meiss said.

Across the river, results were mixed. In Pekin, Good Shepherd Lutheran School Principal Dan Rees reported a slight increase in students. He said most were because they were struggling with virtual learning in their home districts and Good Shepherd offered in-person learning five days a week.

At Faith Baptist Christian School in Pekin, Pastor Tim Collard said the school was down approximately a dozen preschool students due to parents working from home and not needing the extra care. Spanning from preschool to twelfth grade, the school has 94 students enrolled.

The biggest challenge staff faced was adapting to virtual learning so quickly.

“The remote learning, we weren’t prepared for that at all,” he said.

While public schools had to follow a state mandate requiring virtual learning, that did not apply to private schools Collard said.

“We don’t have to follow all the state guidelines, [but] we try to follow them as often as we can and as best we can,” he said.

However, In spring 2020 when the pandemic first hit, school officials made the decision to go virtual in order to keep students safe.

While students adapted well to the changes, Collard said the teachers were the ones who had the most trouble.

“You teach 20 years in a particular style and then suddenly you’re having to learn all over again,” he said. “Our teachers did extremely well. I’m just thrilled with the effort that they put in [considering] the learning curve they’ve been on.”

Finishing that spring semester may have been a challenge, but over the summer, staff invested time into learning how to use Google classrooms and other technology in order to be prepared should they need to go virtual again in Fall 2021. But, it was decided in-person learning could be done effectively and safely.

“We determined over the course of the summer that our school is small and unique, so we could hold school safely.”

Pastor Tim Collard

The prep work came in handy when the fourth-grade teacher came down with COVID-19 during the fall semester, Collard said. For the first week of her quarantine, a substitute teacher stepped in. For the second week, she felt well enough to teach from home virtually.

“Our planning and prep worked for us. We are really grateful for that,” he said. “When we kicked into remote learning, it functioned like it was supposed to.”

Collard said safety protocols were put in place to keep families safe. One of those was dividing the grades into “bubbles.” With most of the grades combined, the students stayed together to minimize spread from classroom to classroom.

In the more rural areas of Tazewell County, Principal of the Christian Life Academy in Hopedale, Josh Horning, said being removed from the urban setting is one reason why his school, in particular, did not see an increase in enrollment.

“The majority of our students live in the smaller, rural districts, most of which have had in-person learning this year. I imagine that’s one factor in why we didn’t see a significant change,” he said in an email.

However, not all private schools faced this challenge. In Morton, Bethel Lutheran School principal John Jacob said his school lost approximately 17 students due to parents wanting to homeschool but gained 27 for a net gain of 10 students.

The students are not just in the Morton School District, he said, but are from surrounding towns such as Washington, East Peoria and Pekin. They are even coming from as far away as Metamora.

Jacob said the biggest challenge has been space, and the school had to turn away students due to not having enough room for them in classrooms.

“We went with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation of at least three feet between students rather than the six feet as originally recommended by the CDC,” he said.  “In some rooms, due to different seating arrangements like in our kindergarten classroom and science lab, we have put up plexiglass dividers to keep our students safe.”

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