OKLAHOMA CITY – The state’s largest virtual public charter school is seeing hundreds of new students from across the state enrolling each day.

So many students enrolled recently that administrators with Epic Public Charter Schools now expect it will become the largest public school district in the entire state when classes resume in September.

Shelly Hickman, an assistant superintendent, said about 60 percent of new families say the COVID-19 pandemic is the reason they’re ditching traditional brick-and-mortar public schools in favor of Epic, which has specialized in virtual education for about decade.

"How much we are going to spend on technology is very fluid right now because of the enrollment spike," she said.

Its model prioritizes purchasing new devices and ensuring internet connectivity for every student. Hickman said the school expects to spend at least $30 million on technology, hardware and connectivity.

Statewide, more districts are offering distance-based learning options to students who don’t want in-person instruction. School leaders say enrollment and interest in distance-based learning options is growing. However, education advocates say it’s an expensive proposition for districts, which are now facing unexpected, unfunded and mounting technology tabs that state lawmakers didn't cover.

Advocates fear that distance-based learning initiatives could widen the gap between the wealthiest districts that have the tax bases to provide a computer to every student and the poorest districts that don’t.

Donna Campo, executive director of the Oklahoma Technology Association, said districts already are grappling with state legislative budget cuts. District funding woes are exacerbated by the pandemic, the resulting economic shutdowns and the struggling oil and gas industry.

Many districts are just trying to make ends meet, she said. Without the funds to buy the necessary technology to support remote learning, some districts are telling parents they’re on their own if they choose that option.

Campo’s organization aims to integrate technology to transform teaching and learning in schools.

“There have not been the discretionary (state) funds to be able to invest in technology like we normally would if we had good, solid budgets,” Campo said. “That’s something we’ve been talking about a long time in Oklahoma. It is a situation where, unfortunately, we are going to have to rely on the federal government to pass legislation that puts money into the school districts.”

At the start of the pandemic, Campo said she urged lawmakers and election officials to offer more election dates for districts that needed to pass bonds to pay for technology. There was little interest.

“It is certainly an issue when the school can’t provide technology to be able to access the virtual option,” Campo said.

On Friday, state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister announced that 175 school districts were given mobile internet access devices to help ensure all students needing distance or hybrid learning models have access.

“The pandemic has underscored the inequities of the digital divide that hinder opportunities for so many of our children,” she said. “We know one-fourth of our students lack reliable home internet access.”

She said many districts already used a portion of federal coronavirus relief money to purchase devices.

“But a device without connectivity is like a book in a pitch-dark room,” Hofmeister said.

Districts that receive the hot spots must pay a “nominal monthly fee” for unlimited services for at least six months and ensure that the devices are assigned only to low-income students. School systems can purchase additional hot spots for teachers, staff and other students.

Chris Brewster, superintendent of Santa Fe South Schools, said about 20 percent of the families attending his south Oklahoma City charter school expressed interest in full-time virtual education because of the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation.

For safety reasons, the school decided to have only 25 percent of the students present at any given time. On days when students will not attend in person, they’ll attend virtually.

Brewster’s district is trying to purchase technology for all 3,600 students so each child will have a Chromebook, the software and internet access needed to run it from home. Nearly 93 percent of the district’s students are at or below the poverty line.

Brewster said he’s applied for a hot spot grant to help offset COVID-19 expenses, which are already into the seven-figures. He’s expecting nearly $1.5 to $2 million in unanticipated costs for his small district.

With hundreds of thousands of districts all competing for the same technology, Brewster said he’s run into another unanticipated problem – order backlogs.

“The type of pressure on the supply and demand is enormous right now,” he said.

With school scheduled to start in days, he’s still 300 to 400 devices short, and doesn’t know when his final orders will arrive.

Other districts may have to wait until Christmas to receive their orders, he said.

“(Some districts) are simply saying, ‘Parents, you’re on your own. You’ve got to figure out a device,’” Brewster said. “I don’t know what parents are going to do if they haven’t already figured out how to get a device at home in districts that are not already providing those.”

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites.

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