I have lost count of the number of television ads I have seen in the last few weeks for cyber and cyber charter schools. They all state the same thing: they are free public education. Yes, they are free to the family that signs up, because they are paid for by the public school district in which the student would normally be enrolled! And, at a cost of between $20,000 and $27,000 per student (or more), it does not take many sign-ups to seriously hurt the budget of the local school district.

When a family signs their child up for cyber school, they think that the cyber school is paying for all supplies, but it is really the public school that foots the bills — for computers, books, internet connections, and all supplies. Additionally, none of the Pennsylvania cyber schools meets the minimum criteria required of public schools. Families assume that the cyber school sign-up means that they will have a trouble-free connection for their computer, and a teacher for all classes who will devote one-on-one time to their child. Unfortunately, living in rural northeastern or northcentral Pennsylvania usually means that their internet connection is spotty, at best, and most teachers for cyber schools are supervising multiple classes, each with dozens of students.

With the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, parents are nervous about sending their kids back to brick-and-mortar schools. Each school district is completing and posting a Health and Safety Plan, filed with the state, for its own district. That plan spells out how the district will handle the transportation of students, getting them into the buildings, and conducting classes, all while keeping them as safe as possible through cleaning and sanitizing facilities.

These plans have been drawn up over the spring and summer with the input of the administration, teachers, parents, and health professionals. Added to that is the input of the CDC and state health departments. With new requirements coming from the state, often on a daily basis, rewrites have been frequent.

In Sullivan County, a survey has been sent out to families asking for their input. It is available to families on the school’s website, or as a hard copy through school offices, on request. Sullivan County, with a population of about 6,500, has had only 10 COVID-19 cases (as of this writing) — a very low count. Even with that, the school district is offering families two pathways for their kids: in person attendance in the schools this fall, or virtual attendance with their kids’ regular teachers, using a variety of platforms. Of course, the virtual pathway does not solve the spotty internet connections in Sullivan County. To try to buoy up those connections, the district is working with the County Commissioners to set up study centers where students with weak or no internet connections can go to log on to their classes’ sites. The district will also support families with hard copies of materials as needed.

Before local families decide that a cyber school is the way to go this fall, I ask that parents or guardians speak with the local administrative teams. They will be able to answer many of your concerns and questions. Unfortunately, with enough cyber school sign-ups this fall, teachers and programs that make your school district unique may not be there by next year.

Rebecca Ferguson is a Sullivan County School Board member.