FLORENCE, S.C. (WBTW) –- South Carolina’s public charter schools continue to build on the momentum gained during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data from the state’s department of education. 

There were 25,873 students enrolled in South Carolina charter schools for the 2017-18 academic year, according to the South Carolina Department of Education. That rose to 30,764 for 2019-20, before spiking to 39,523 in 2020-21. This fall, that jumped again, reaching 41,572 students.

The rise has been mostly attributed to parents turning to the schools as districts moved their classes online. Some charters had different approaches and had been handling virtual classes for years, making them well-equipped to teach online students.

There was been a lot of talk about if the boost was just pandemic-related, according to Kevin Mason, the interim executive director for the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina. However, it appears that parents are keeping their children enrolled, even after the initial surge.

“We were very pleased to see that, no, those numbers did not take a dramatic drop, and did stay steady throughout the pandemic,” he said. 

Before COVID-19, Mason said, many parents didn’t know what charter schools were. The public, tuition-free schools offer different learning models than traditional public schools and can be smaller. 

Now that the awareness is out there, that momentum is growing.

“I think across South Carolina we are seeing a greater demand for charters,” Mason said. 

There are 15 charter schools expected to open across the state in 2023. 

However, the pandemic led to many prospective schools either holding off on applying for approval or rescinding their applications due to being unable to hold in-person meetings to discuss whether parents would be interested in the model. 

During the application process, schools have to prove that there is a desire to open a school in the area and explain how its model is unique from a district school. 

“I think charter schools are able to provide students and families an option that is different, and I think sometimes when you hear ‘different,’ it means bad or wrong,” Mason said. “I think charter schools are here to work hand-in-hand with districts. We are public schools, we are publicly funded through the state, and I think there are enough students in South Carolina that we need more options to better serve these students, to meet them where they are at and help them just have a foundation.”

That growth trend has been visible at Virtus Academy, a charter school in Florence. The school currently enrolls students in kindergarten through eighth grade and will add a grade each year until it reaches K-12 status in 2025. 

The school boasts class sizes of up to 23 students and uses a project-based learning curriculum. 

There are currently 532 students enrolled at the school, with 59 on the waiting list for the next academic year, according to Principal Shemekia Nero. 

That growth has continued since the school opened its doors in 2018.

“I think it is because parents are looking for something different than what’s offered in the traditional public school setting – not that it’s necessarily bad, or they aren’t getting what they need,” Nero said. “But, sometimes students need something different, and I think charter schools offer something different. We are a choice school. We are a great choice for some. For others, the traditional setting is a better option.”

The Charter Institute at Erskine has recognized the school with a “Shooting for the Stars” award for its academic growth.

Horry County will gain a new charter school next year. Horry County Acceleration Academy has gained approval to move forward, according to an announcement on Friday. When open, the school will target high school dropouts.