A Saskatoon-based online school says it has seen a dramatic increase in enrolment since the provincial government announced its back-to-school plan.
David Cook is the president of Flex Ed, a ministry-approved independent school that offers distance learning for kindergarten through Grade 12.
He says there has been an "absolute flood" of enrolments and interest in the school in recent weeks.
"We're used to growing every year but at a much more manageable pace," Cook said. "Our enrolment last year was about 300 students, and so far we're looking at over 900 students right now for this coming school year."
The Flex Ed website says its primary and middle school enrolment for the upcoming school year is temporarily only accepting waiting list applications, but high school applications are still open.
Cook says due to the influx of new students, he has had to double his teaching staff from 20 to 40.
"We've managed to have a lot of teachers that have reached out to us at this time to send us resumés and ask if we needed help," Cook said, adding that he's hired over 20 teachers in the last week.
What is Flex Ed?
Full-time Flex Ed students pay an initial registration fee, according to its website, but the government of Saskatchewan covers the cost of tuition.
It's described online as a "virtual school."
"It's not just putting a camera in a classroom and then broadcasting the classroom," Cook said. "We've actually got a program that's been designed to be delivered at a distance."
Cook said before the pandemic, a wide variety of students were using the learning services.
That included anyone "from home-schoolers that don't want to figure out the curriculum on their own to students that have had bullying issues and have anxiety," Cook said. "Or professional students [who] need a special schedule to be able to have their training schedule."
He said there were in-person learning opportunities available at Flex Ed, but those have since been cancelled due to COVID-19.
"We had a program [where] we were going around the province and looking at some of the historical places and the legislature, and allowing the kids to have some learning in real time and develop relationships with other kids their age," Cook said.
When the government closed schools across the province earlier this year, Flex Ed had to close its classrooms as well.
"The chief medical health officer was not willing to make any compromises on closing schools," Cook said. "So even though we weren't actually needing a physical space, we had to close down the school for a week just like everyone else in the province."
Pitfalls with distance learning
Cook said since other school districts are offering remote learning for the upcoming fall semester, there could be competition for Flex Ed, but the school has lots of experience in the field.
"We've been doing it for 15 years and we've managed to develop a very good program that's designed to be delivered at a distance," Cook said. "We're well prepared to offer distance education in the province and not too worried at this point about having competition."
Cook said there are some hard lessons Flex Ed has learned through its years of distance learning that school districts should keep in mind for the upcoming school year.
"There's definitely pitfalls to be had in any type of education, and one of the biggest pitfalls that we've experienced is student engagement," Cook said.
"It's much more difficult to keep students engaged in their work when they're working remotely, because they can be distracted by so many other things or maybe just lose interest in their school work."
Cook said that distance learning is not for everybody, but just like a normal classroom, students can excel in the environment.
"In Flex Ed we have a philosophy in education that kids will thrive if given the right environment," Cook said, "A student can learn in any environment if they have the right tools and resources in place."
"We try to give kids those resources that they need to learn at a distance."