RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Many students are sticking with virtual learning even though classrooms across Virginia are open. 

Two statewide, online programs are starting a new school year this week. Officials say more kids are learning virtually than before the pandemic and, unlike many in-person schools, staff shortages haven’t been a problem.

Virginia Virtual Academy Executive Director Suzanne Sloane said their full-time enrollment is currently nearing 5,000 students and fall registration is still open.

Sloane said that’s down from their pandemic peak of roughly 7,500 full-time students in the fall of 2021 but it’s more than double their March 2020 total of about 2,100 students. 

Virtual Virginia Executive Director Dr. Brian Mott said they’re seeing a similar trend. He said full-time enrollment was at 413 students in the 2019-2020 school year and it rose to 924 during the 2020-2021 school year. It went up again to 8,788 students during the 2021-2022 school year and dropped to 3,374 going into the 2022-2023 school year, according to preliminary data.

“We are exceeding pre-pandemic growth,” Mott said. “We had anticipated about 30 to 40% of completing students would return to online and we’ve exceeded that.” 

“It’s definitely a permanent shift to virtual and we’re hearing all different stories,” Sloane said.

Six-year-old Xander Owens is one of those stories. He is starting his second year at Virginia Virtual Academy on Thursday.

“I feel pretty strongly that we’re in it for the long haul,” said Xander’s father, Dustin Owens. “But I always want to give him the option.” 

Owens said he originally planned to send Xander to a traditional public school but pandemic uncertainty and his new remote job made virtual learning the right choice for his family. Owens said the virtual program also allowed Xander to easily switch to harder classes after proving advanced in reading and math. 

“You see all of these articles about teacher shortages and stuff like that. I’m just not sure that a regular setting could really provide him with enough of a challenge,” Owens said. 

To accommodate the increase in students, both virtual programs say they’ve successfully increased staff.

“Pre-pandemic, we probably had about 90 staff members. We have almost 200 now,” Sloane said. “Average teacher salary is about where we’re meeting but we’ve never had a problem with the teacher shortage at all and, again, the retention of teachers wanting to stay with us is something I’m really proud of.”

Sloane said they’ve received an average of 75 applicants for each open position. She attributes the lack of recruitment challenges to the appeal of remote work and the support they give their staff. 

At Virtual Virginia, Mott said they had roughly 120 staff members pre-pandemic. He said that shot up last year to nearly 500 full-time and part-time workers. Going into this school year, he said they’re settling down to roughly 200 staff members. 

Asked if they’ve struggled with staff shortages, Mott said, “Largely no, because we are able to recruit beyond our geographic barriers. One thing for school divisions is they have to recruit within a certain distance of the physical schools.” 

As several school districts scramble to fill positions ahead of the school year, Mott said using Virtual Virginia classes could help bridge the gap. He said he’s having these conversations with a number of localities.

“The potential for virtual learning to support some of those shortages…we do anticipate that to increase,” Mott said. 

Fall enrollment for Virginia Virtual Academy will be open until Oct. 1. 

Fall registration for Virtual Virginia is closed but interested parents can apply for the spring semester.