Virtual charter schools see boom in enrollment with COVID-19 disrupting traditional schooling

Originally published to – November 30, 2020

A year ago, Michigan International Prep School, a statewide K-12 virtual charter, enrollment was around 700 students. This year, the school saw enrollment almost double to 1,250 students, officials say.

The COVID-19 pandemic had parents across Michigan and the country seeking out established cyber charter schools, either because they didn’t want in-person learning for their children or because they lacked confidence in their home school district’s virtual option.

“We think we’re doing the right things by kids and families and we have a lot of word-of-mouth marketing but there are certainly a lot of people who have come to us due to COVID,’’ said Charles Carver, director of program advancement for Michigan International Prep School, based in Ortonville.

Carver said parents are worried about their student being around others in the pandemic. He also said some traditional school districts “just weren’t ready’’ for the transition to virtual learning.

Brick-and-mortar traditional public schools had to quickly transition to remote or blended instruction models when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed all schools in March to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But school leaders say they spent the summer months preparing for this school year and learned how to deliver a better online learning experience.

Still, many parents opted to send their children to schools already set up for virtual learning.

Prior to COVID-19, Whitney Harbowy said she planned to send her children, ages 7 and 5, to Columbia Elementary School in Brooklyn, MI where they live, but still planned to have her 6-year-old enrolled at Michigan International Prep School. However, all three children are enrolled at the charter school.

“We feel they’re learning more without any interruption between in-person and virtual learning that brick and mortar schools are having to go through,” she said. “Even though it might be a bit more mind challenging at times, we don’t feel we’ve lost anything going to a virtual public school.”

At K12, the nation’s largest online charter school operator, enrollment increased from 123,000 to 170,000 students this year, according to reporting by Chalkbeat. Connections Academy, the second largest charter network, reportedly saw an increase in applications of 61%.

With an influx of families looking to enroll, Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Academy increased its enrollment cap by about 400 students. The statewide charter, which was founded in 2013, was enrolling 3,100 students but that rose to 3,500 this school year.

This was about a 12% student increase with “potential to grow more,” Principal Kendall Schroeder said. Even with the increased capacity, the school was full by the time fall came around.

Families are primarily looking for structure in these uncertain times, Schroeder said.

“We can provide more structure,” Schroeder said. “We have the technology. We have the curriculum that’s geared toward this type of learning. We have teachers that are trained to teach in this type of an environment. So, I can understand why families would be seeking out this option.”

Nicole Heath’s 5-year-old attends Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Academy. The family lives in the Fitzgerald Public School District in Warren but always planned to opt for a more established online option outside of the district.

“We’ve have had a pretty good experience so far so hopefully it stays that way,” she said.

Heath said her daughter has had a lot of direct interaction with teachers and her schedule can be flexible.

“If she has a doctors appointment or something, we just notify the teacher and we can push her class to later that day,” Heath said, noting it helps that her job at a portrait studio is flexible.

Buddy Moorehouse, spokesperson for Michigan’s Charter School Association, said the pandemic has brought a “renewed appreciation and respect for the job that the online charter schools have been doing.”

“In the past they had gotten an unfair rep that the education they were providing wasn’t up to the standards of a brick and mortar education,” he said. “It was viewed that if children’s circumstances were such that it was better to be in an online charter school, that they were somehow suffering.”

Before the pandemic, he said many students opted for the virtual charter school option because they had a job, were often on the road for athletics, had been bullied in a different school, lived in a remote location or their family was mobile for work.

Now, families across Michigan have experienced some form of online learning, Moorehouse said.

“If there’s anything positive that’s come out of the pandemic, it is that every district in the state including all of the charter schools in the state, have been forced to make sure that their kids can receive an education even if they aren’t able to be in the building,” he said.

To learn more about Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Academy, visit

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