Wyoming virtual school sees large increase in enrollment

SHERIDAN — When Samantha Bublich made the decision to keep her kids at home this school year, she did so with reservations. She believes in public schools, in-person learning and classrooms where students interact with other learners on a regular basis.

She does not believe, however, that masks should be required of students to attend class in person.

“There’s only one reason,” Bublich said of why she opted for virtual school for her three kids. “Mandating kids to wear masks. I don’t think it’s healthy, especially for junior high kids and older who basically have to wear them the whole time.”

Bublich isn’t alone.

According to reports from the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, approximately 30 people gathered on the grounds of the state Capitol last week to protest the requirements for children to wear masks in school. According to the reports, Laura Jorgensen of Fort Bridger helped organize the protest along with others after an anti-mask Facebook group grew to more than 4,000 members.

While other parents said COVID-19 and the surrounding protocols provided the nudge to switch to home schooling, Bublich had never considered the option before COVID-19. Rather than seek curriculum and begin teaching her children herself, Bublich signed the three up for Wyoming Connections Academy — a tuition-free online public school run through Big Horn County School District 1.

“I really wasn’t sure I would’ve gotten to all the lessons and things they need to learn in a year,” Bublich said of why she made the choice. “I wasn’t sure of the capabilities I had.”

Bublich added that many of the home-school programs that she’s seen look great, but she felt crunched for time before the start of the school year to get organized.

Bublich wasn’t alone there, either.

According to Wyoming Connections Academy principal Shannon Siebert, the school has seen a huge increase in students.

Last year, the peak enrollment for the online program reached approximately 470 students. This year, while still fluctuating, Wyoming Connections Academy has about 1,200 students.

“We did anticipate that we were going to see a large increase in enrollment for various reasons, not just COVID,” Siebert said. “We’ve seen a growing interest in online virtual schooling for awhile now. So we were anticipating that and our goal was to have 550 to 600 students.

“Then, with everything that happened, we anticipated 750 to 800 students,” she continued. “So we’re not too far off, but the biggest thing that we’re all learning is that everything is unpredictable.”

In response to the uptick in enrollment, Siebert said the school has hired more teachers and has continued to build a candidate pool as they anticipate the need to hire even more.

She said the largest growth in enrollment has come in the elementary school levels. Normally Wyoming Connections Academy has about 100 students in that age group taught by three teachers, but this year has more than 500. In response the school hired an additional eight teachers for that age group.

Wyoming Connections Academy staff received training before the start of the school year that included an emphasis on identifying student and family needs, supporting those needs and continuing engagement.

“The biggest theme this year is support, how we’re supporting our families, how we’re supporting each other — and through that support we can create amazing things,” Siebert said, adding that each family’s needs is different this year so teaching and interactions are very individualized — even more so than normal.

The process through Wyoming Connections Academy hasn’t been painless, though.

Bublich said the Wyoming Connections Academy is not geared toward younger students, like her 6-year-old son, who has struggled to work independently. Bublich said she found herself sitting with him for nearly every lesson, having to read the lessons to him.

The struggle with the online school became too much, she added, so her son has returned to Meadowlark for classes.

Bublich’s daughters, ages 9 and 11, have continued working through the online public school. Bublich said they’ve done well, but have certainly missed their friends and teachers. As they work through lessons, which have not yet included any live teaching, Bublich noted she has sometimes struggled to effectively help.

“I’m 39 and haven’t been in school for a really long time,” Bublich said. “I look things up a lot. I can’t wait for this mask thing to be over. I love having my kids home, but I’m not a teacher.”

Bublich said that as soon as the mask requirements lift, she plans to send her children back to in-person classes in traditional public schools.

Public health officials, though, have redoubled their message regarding masks. Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Congress this week that masks may be more effective than a vaccine in preventing the spread of COVID-19. In addition, local health officials have reiterated their stance on masks helping to contain the spread of the virus.

According to a University of Wyoming Survey & Analysis Center survey conducted in August, a majority — 61% — of Wyoming residents now say they’ve changed their routine by wearing personal protective equipment like masks in public, but the practice remains a point of contention for many.