Across Pennsylvania, enrollment in the state’s cyber charter schools jumped from 38,266 to 60,890.By Kristine Sorensen

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — When schools moved to remote learning last spring, many families were not happy with the instruction and looked for alternatives for the fall.

As a result, Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools saw enrollment increase by 59 percent. But as almost all kids are trying some form of online school, the limits of online school — that already showed in test scores before the coronavirus pandemic — are becoming more apparent.

Mia Hutchinson started kindergarten online with PA Cyber and loves it.

“In the middle of my classes, I get to go play with my dog, Grace. She is the funniest thing,” Mia said.

Hutchinson’s mother, Amy, signed up her daughter for PA Cyber when it looked like her local school district in Westmoreland County was going all online or hybrid.

“I really didn’t want her to have her first initial interaction with school to be wonky,” Amy said.

She’d had had a positive experience with PA Cyber with her older son when she needed it because of her work schedule.

The CEO of PA Cyber, Brian Hayden, says people come to them for all kinds of reasons. But this year, many came for safety and something better than the education they got in the spring.

They maxed out enrollment at 11,677 kids, with a waiting list of 2,300.

“We’ve been doing this for two decades, and our teachers have learned how to engage and mentor students virtually. Our technology department is the best in the country,” Hayden says.

Across Pennsylvania, enrollment in the state’s cyber charter schools jumped from 38,266 to 60,890 while public schools lost about 52,000 students.

But test scores for online charter schools have consistently lagged behind brick-and-mortar schools. A study out of Stanford University showed the learning loss translates to 106 fewer days of learning in reading and 118 fewer days of learning in math at Pennsylvania cyber schools compared to district schools.

James Fogerty, executive director of A+ schools, says, “Before this even started, I was concerned we were selling families and parents a bill of goods that we weren’t able to deliver on.”

Hayden says he’s not proud of the scores and is working to improve them. He says their kids don’t test as well because they have to go to an off-site location for long days of testing.

But Fogerty says one of the many reasons could be the challenge of online learning itself. Hayden agrees it doesn’t work for everyone.

“Cyber schools are not for everyone. I think we are all learning this right now,” Hayden said.

Because so many kids have no choice but to do school all online because of the pandemic, there are concerns about how much kids are learning. A national study found math scores for 4.4 million students in grades 3 through 8 lost significant ground.

Hayden says these scores could also be due to the disruption itself.

“I don’t think it’s the online part. I think it’s the instability of education over the last nine months that is impacting that more than anything else,” he said.

There are kids who are successful with the cyber charter schools, and Fogerty says we should learn from them so we can all apply that with online schools.

Both Hayden and the Hutchinsons say it helps to keep a routine, keep the environment like a school and free of distractions, and for the parents to be involved in the schoolwork.

Kristine Sorensen