Emily Smith explains her son's homework

Emily Smith talks about her son’s homework. Smith has chosen to send her youngest son to Christian Fellowship School instead of Columbia Public Schools because she didn’t think he would excel in an online-only environment.

Emily Smith knew Columbia Public School District’s online structure would not work for her youngest son.

So she enrolled the fifth-grader in Christian Fellowship School, a private school in Columbia. Smith allowed her eighth-grade son to attend Gentry Middle School virtually, hoping the district would decide to return middle schoolers to in-person classes.

When the Columbia Board of Education voted Nov. 9 to delay the return of in-person classes for middle and high school students until Jan. 19, Smith initiated transfer paperwork for her older son.

She hopes Christian Fellowship will allow him to start attending school there in January, despite a long waiting list.

On Nov. 9, staffing shortages also prompted the School Board to return elementary school students to virtual instruction until Jan. 11.

“I feel like we’re kind of stuck,” Smith said about her eighth-grader. “But it’s not a good environment to have him sitting in front of an iPad screen all day.”

Area private schools, which started in-person classes in August, are reporting increased enrollment from Columbia Public Schools students. Some officials said they are near or at capacity.

Waitlists are long and inquiries seem to spike with each School Board vote related to virtual attendance, officials said.

Columbia Independent School reported a 400% increase in inquiries from families since Columbia Public Schools decided to continue online learning.

Director of Admissions Kari Dowell said almost all of the inquiries came from Columbia Public Schools parents.

“In a typical year, we might have 25 families reaching out with inquiries,” she said. “This year, this August, we had 125.”

Private school administrators declined to disclose exact enrollment numbers, but Heritage Academy and Fr. Tolton Catholic High School both reported an increase in enrollment, reaching maximum capacity this year.

Principal Elaine Hassemer of Our Lady of Lourdes Interparish School said in late October the school was nearly at capacity, with a wait list exceeding 100 students. Tuition at the Ca tholic school starts at $4,300.

“We have a significant wait list now,” Hassemer said. “People are looking for options.”

Among them was Carmen Adams, who transferred her daughter, Lilly, to Tolton earlier this year. Adams believes in-person learning is necessary for her daughter’s academic success — and worth the cost of tuition.

The school charges $7,920 per year, per child for registered Catholic families and $10,170 per year for all other students.

Significant life changes, such as enrolling in a new school, are not ideal for Lilly, who has a stress-triggered autoimmune disorder, her mother said.

“Is it worth transferring? Absolutely,” Adams said. “They shouldn’t be isolated like that. They shouldn’t be alone or away from their friends, away from the activities that you do in school. Even outside of academics, that’s such a big part of growing up.”

According to Columbia Public Schools, the district has lost 227 students in first through eighth grades, with 67 elementary students and 12 middle school students transferring to private or home-schooling this year.

Enrollment has not changed at the high school level, according to the district.

District spokesperson Michelle Baumstark said the board, the administration and parents all want to return to safe, in-person education.

“Our goal is we want to be in person, we want to have a regular school year,” Baumstark said. “Who doesn’t want that? Everyone wants that.”

Smith is doubtful. She plans to keep her youngest son in private school until he enters high school in three years.

“I have no faith that even though their goal is to come back in January, I don’t think they will,” Smith said.

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