Ron Talbot, superintendent of Harper School District. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

HARPER – Traditional school enrollment was down and online enrollment surged at Malheur County schools last fall as families looked for ways to cope with the challenges of comprehensive distance learning during the Covid pandemic. 

The Oregon Department of Education’s recently released figures show that enrollment as of Oct. 1 fell from the 2019 by 13% in Adrian and Annex, by 3% in Ontario and Nyssa, and by 10% in Vale. 

However, in Harper School District, home of the Harper Online Academy, enrollment was up by 53%. 

Ron Talbot, Harper superintendent and principal, said that having been online since before the start of the pandemic was an advantage. The online academy is currently in its third year of operations, with coursework designed specifically for a virtual modality. That makes it different from the comprehensive distance learning provided at most other public schools, which was adapted from classroom teaching. 

“They take their courses through an online program that teaches the class, whereas in distance learning we’re pushing out the material to the kids each week,” explained Talbot. “(It’s a) self paced curriculum. It’s lessons that you read or that are recorded, and then you do the assignment or quiz to follow.”

Education Department officials said that the 3.7% drop in enrollment seen statewide was concentrated at the kindergarten level, and that as comprehensive distance learning is replaced by in-person learning, districts should see their student numbers bounce back. 

That prediction is in line with what is already happening at Vale Elementary School, which experienced a decline of 56 students between fall 2019 and fall 2020. 

“Since we opened up full time on (Jan.) 19, at the elementary school alone we have jumped up 17 students,” said Theresa Meiwald, Vale Elementary School principal. “Some of them are re-enrolling, others are new students. We’ve had a handful move in. We’ve been really excited, and hopefully that trend continues and we pick up even a few more.”

Enrollment trends from October 2019 to October 2020 in Malheur County, according Oregon Department of Education data. (Scotta Callister/The Enterprise).

Regardless of whether Vale manages to pick up more students, state officials say that district leaders need not worry about funding. 

“Although enrollment is a key factor in distributing school funding, the funding level is fixed and the funding distribution formula is flexible enough to accommodate this decline without significantly impacting dollars needed to support Oregon’s students,” according to an Education Department press release.

Despite the return locally to in-person learning, Talbot said that he is confident that Harper Online Academy can sustain its numbers. There are currently 175 students total, 93 of whom are online and 112 of whom are in the brick-and-mortar school.

“I think with schools opening, if kids were going to just leave they would’ve already started leaving,” said Talbot. “We’ve worked hard to develop the programs that we have and you’re seeing some of the benefit from it right now. I’m glad that we’re able to offer something that’s working for people in a time that’s been so tough on everyone.”

News tip? Contact Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

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