Emilia Diaz of Falmouth, a seventh-grader who enrolled in Maine Connections Academy this year, works on math homework at her home. She said, “It’s been really awesome.”  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Emilia Diaz had never thought about enrolling in virtual school but when the coronavirus upended traditional school last year and some of her friends signed up for it, Diaz agreed it could be a safer option.

“Most of my friends were doing it and I wanted to be in the same classes as them,” said Diaz, who left Falmouth Middle School last fall to attend Maine Connections Academy. “It’s been really awesome and I really like doing it,” she added.

The seventh-grader is among dozens of Maine students who enrolled in one of the state’s two virtual charter schools for the first time last fall. Both schools experienced an increase in enrollment that officials have linked to the coronavirus pandemic as families worried about the safety of in-person learning and remote learning became the norm.

Virtual schools nationally have seen similar increases in enrollment, although it remains to be seen if those numbers will outlast the pandemic. Remote learning isn’t for everyone but it is something more people are familiar with now. But virtual schools have also raised concerns in Maine and elsewhere for performance that lags traditional brick-and-mortar schools and for their ties to for-profit companies that provide curriculum or support.

“We’ve seen a tremendous increase with COVID-19 affecting in-person education,” said Walter Wallace, principal at Maine Connections Academy. “A lot of families were reaching out, going on our webpage and inquiring about our school and many of them decided to try and enroll for this year.”

Enrollment at Maine Connections Academy, a 7-12 virtual school with offices in Scarborough, jumped from 410 to 458 students this year and the school had a waitlist of more than 340 students, Wallace said. Enrollment at the virtual charter schools is capped and the Maine Charter School Commission voted last fall to increase the maximum enrollment to 450 with a 5 percent over allowance.

Maine Virtual Academy, which also serves grades 7-12 and is based in Augusta, saw enrollment jump from 396 students to 430 after the charter commission raised the cap 10 percent to 429. Head of School Melinda Browne said the school had a waitlist of over 300 students in early fall, about 100 more than normal. “Demand was off the charts last spring,” Browne said. “People were panicking. They wanted to make sure their student had a consistent schooling model.”

Virtual schools around the country have seen similar upticks in enrollment over the last year. Stride Inc., the company that provides curriculum and support to Maine Virtual Academy, currently enrolls 185,000 students nationwide, up from 122,000 one year ago, a 51 percent increase. Connections Academy online schools enroll over 100,000 students and saw a 43 percent increase in 2020.

“It’s not so much they became more popular, but they became more of a necessity,” said Gary Miron, a professor of education at Western Michigan University. Miron said school districts were unprepared for the pandemic and the transition to remote learning, but he doesn’t expect virtual schools to have performed better than traditional schools over the last year. “It changes slightly from year to year but (the performance) is always way lower than what we see in brick and mortar schools,” Miron said.

In 2018 an independent report raised concerns about the performance of Maine Virtual Academy, citing problems with absenteeism, a low graduation rate and weak test scores, though Browne said they have since made improvements. The current four-year graduation rate of 64 percent is up from 49 percent in 2018 but still remains well below the statewide rate of 87 percent. Chronic absenteeism dropped from more than 30 percent in 2017-2018 to just under 12 percent in 2018-2019. The statewide rate that year was 17 percent.

At Maine Connections Academy, the four-year graduation rate of 61.5 is up slightly from 57 percent two years ago. “It’s not a number we like but it’s an improvement over the rate students come in with,” Wallace said. He said many of the students the school serves who enter in grades 10, 11 or 12 come in “off-track” for graduation. “The graduation rate and student achievement are our major goals,” Wallace said. “I really believe increased student engagement will be a large piece of helping raise those scores and graduation rates.”

The school has made improvements in chronic absenteeism, which was at 14.3 percent in 2018-2019 compared to 36 percent in 2017-2018.

Prior to the pandemic, Browne said many students were drawn to the virtual school because of mental or physical disabilities and the additional flexibility offered, social difficulties such as bullying or a feeling of not belonging or because they were engaged in elite levels of a sport or other activity.

Ellis Donnelly, a sophomore at Maine Virtual Academy, spent most of his academic career in traditional public schools and then transferred to a private school a few years ago. His grandmother, Kim Borden, said they sought an alternative to traditional public school because in middle school Ellis rode the bus with mostly older high school students whom she felt were a bad influence. “Everyone likes to hear the little kid swear, you know what I mean?” she said.

When COVID hit last year, the pastor at Borden’s church mentioned Maine Virtual Academy and she and her husband enrolled their grandson last fall. “I like it because I’m more able to focus and it’s easier to talk to my teachers,” said Donnelly, 15, of West Newfield.

Donnelly’s grandparents, with whom he lives, said he gets more one-on-one time with teachers and their grandson is more likely to speak up and ask for help in the virtual setting. They also like the flexibility of online learning and believe the independence is helping him prepare for college. “These days everything is virtual school and college is a lot of online courses, so this is helping him prepare for that,” Bob Donnelly said.

In Falmouth, Abby Diaz and her husband decided both their children would learn remotely this year to avoid the disruptions of cases in schools and quarantines. While her third-grade son would learn from teachers who were also fully remote in their district option, her daughter Emilia’s middle school teachers were trying to juggle both remote and in-person students at the same time.

“I’m very respectful of the demands that put on them,” Abby Diaz said. “For us and for Emilia the fact Maine Connections had a program up and running and had dedicated teachers for whom this cohort of students was their focus felt meaningful to me.”

Each class has a once-per-week live lesson and the rest of the time Emilia works on individual assignments. If she needs help, there are office hours or she can email a teacher. The school helps her feel like part of a community by sending packages in the mail, such as coloring books or pencils after a test. “It’s been really nice and I like how interactive it is,” Emilia Diaz said.

Whether students like Diaz will remain enrolled in virtual school next year remains to be seen. Miron, the professor, said he expects many families who gravitated towards virtual options during the pandemic will return to in-person learning. He said school districts, some of whom are exploring retaining their own virtual options for next year, may be better suited to offer students blended models where they can attend a mix of in-person and virtual school for those who are interested.

“We’ll always have a need for full-time virtual schools, but instead of 350,000 students I can imagine it will be a suitable option, in an ideal world, for only a few thousand students and those will be child actors, athletes and children with illnesses that can’t study in traditional environments,” Miron said.

At Maine Virtual Academy, meanwhile, Browne said the pace of new applicants is slightly ahead of last year. “I think our model is becoming more mainstream as people get used to the idea of it,” she said. “Maybe they’ve seen friends or neighbors graduate from our school. There is a sense that this is something that will work for some students.”

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