Families move to get their kids the ultimate education: an in-person one

Why We Wrote This

The pandemic has prompted some who had been thinking about a move to act on it. Utah, Colorado, and Vermont have seen an influx of families able to relocate so that their children can attend school in person.

Rick Bowmer/AP
Students walk into Liberty Elementary School during the first day of class in Murray, Utah, Aug. 17, 2020.

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Dissatisfaction with remote learning during the pandemic has led some families to take extraordinary measures, even moving out of state in hopes that their children can attend school in person.

Many have headed to states where they have some connection – a vacation spot, a second home, a previous residence – places that also offer a lifestyle change. They’re moving to destinations like Utah, Colorado, and Vermont, where classrooms, for the time being, are open or on a hybrid schedule.

Todd Winters, director of admissions at the Waterford School in Sandy, Utah, reports “off the charts nuts” interest over the summer that resulted in a third of new families at the school coming from out of state.

Ski communities in Colorado and Vermont have seen big jumps in school enrollment as well. 

The hope of in-person instruction isn’t the sole driver behind these moves, though. “Schools were part of the decision, but we wanted to make a complete lifestyle change,” says Amy Burky, about her and her husband’s decision to relocate from Seattle to Park City.

Their daughter started first grade this fall. “There are a lot of new kids in the school,” says Ms. Burky. “She is definitely not alone.”

For more than a year, Debbie and Scott Stauffer contemplated selling their home in northern California’s Bay Area and moving their family out of state. Life was too hectic and too expensive. Then came the pandemic, and schools switched to remote learning. Though the charter school their three sons attended was better prepared than most for online lessons, the boys found it more difficult to focus on their studies than they had in the classroom.

“We loved our school,” explains Ms. Stauffer. “But over time, we realized it wasn’t working.”

Education was the shove the Stauffers needed to finally relocate. Within 11 weeks of deciding to move, the family sold their house in Los Altos, packed up their kids and two dogs, and closed on a new house in Park City, Utah. Now one son, a junior in high school, is at a boarding school in Connecticut, and the other two are attending classes and playing on the eighth and 10th grade soccer teams at the Waterford School, an independent school in Sandy, Utah, halfway between their new home and Salt Lake City.

“The shutdown started, and we said, ‘What are we waiting for?’” says Ms. Stauffer.

The pandemic has caused a lot of introspection about education in America, especially for parents trying to juggle working and helping their children learn from home. Some families like the Stauffers have taken extraordinary measures to restore some sense of normalcy: even moving out of state so their children can attend school in person. That kind of change would be out of reach financially for many, but a surprising number of families able to uproot have chosen to do so, even when it required considerable sacrifice.

“This fall I’ve met with 45 families who visited our campus and are in the process of moving here,” says Todd Winters, director of admissions at the Waterford School. This was on top of “off the charts nuts” interest over the summer that resulted in a third of new families at the school coming from out of state. He anticipates a “second wave” of in-migration that will be even bigger next year.

Fleeing to familiar places

Anecdotally, families have headed to states where they have some connection – a favorite vacation spot, a second home, a previous residence – places that also offer a lifestyle change. They’re moving to destinations like Utah, Colorado, and Vermont, where – for the most part – classrooms have been open or on a hybrid schedule. Some families are even leaving the country for places such as Germany, New Zealand, and Canada, especially if a spouse has dual citizenship.

Utah has seen an influx of “COVID refugees,” with education playing a significant role in those newcomers’ decision to move there, says Pamela Perlich, the director of demographic research at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

The real estate market reflects this influx as well. When the Stauffers visited open houses in Park City – which they knew from vacation trips – or pulled into school parking lots, they noticed license plates from California, Texas, Illinois, and New York.

This summer, home sales in Park City doubled in July and August compared to the same months last year, says Carol Agle, a longtime realtor in the area who also chairs the city’s Statistics Committee. She attributes a significant portion of the increase in the market to out-of-state parents with school-age children. The trend was the same in nearby Salt Lake City, where home sales reached an all-time single-month high in July.

In Colorado, smaller resort and ski communities have welcomed many new families as well, reporting higher than usual school enrollments this fall. For example, Aspen’s school district had 150 new students enrolled in August. Normally the town’s schools average about 15 to 30 new students. Similarly, Steamboat Springs received an influx of nearly 60 families. About half of them moved from within Colorado, with the rest coming from out of state.  The largest contingent of new families came from California.

No regrets

Even when things don’t turn out exactly as planned, families feel the changes they’ve made have been worth the effort. Katharine Agostino, an executive coach, and her husband, Val, a tech entrepreneur, decided to leave Palo Alto in California’s Silicon Valley after pandemic shutdowns and online schooling led them to consider a less-pressured life for their family. They moved to a suburb south of Denver, where earlier this fall their three children enrolled in a school with a hybrid schedule (some days at school and some online). But with recent increases in COVID-19 cases in the surrounding community, school administrators decided to switch entirely to remote learning until case numbers decline.

“The kids are disappointed,” says Ms. Agostino, “but on the other hand, they’ve had 11 weeks of some in-classroom schooling that allowed them to make a lot of new friends.” So are the kids glad they moved? “We talk about this a lot, and it’s always unanimous. We’re just so, so happy that we made this move.”

It’s a similar story in Vermont. Michael S. Pieciak, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation, estimates that about 10,000 more people visited the Green Mountain State during the summer than usual. Based on the soaring real estate market, it looks like many of them decided to buy homes, says Mr. Pieciak, who tracks growth trends in the state. Ski communities especially have seen an influx, with anywhere from 20 to 80 new students in towns such as Stratton and Waitsfield, which usually do not see big jumps in school enrollment.

The schools can handle it, he says. “Vermont has experienced declining enrollments for several decades, and their schools will likely be able to absorb the students.“

Here to stay

Back in Utah, Ms. Agle, the realtor, notes a distinction in this year’s influx of families. The last time she saw a similarly large spike in Park City home sales was in 2001, right after 9/11. 

Then, purchases were driven by wealthy families who were buying ski condos and second homes they could evacuate to in the event of future attacks. “I felt like I was selling ‘bomb shelters,’” explains Ms. Agle. The difference now is that many of the new arrivals have sold their old homes and appear to have come to stay.

“Schools were part of the decision, but we wanted to make a complete lifestyle change,” says Amy Burky, about her and her husband’s decision to sell their home in Seattle and move with their two grade-school-age children to Park City over the summer.

Online learning did not work for their special-needs son, who is in second grade. Now, he’s at a charter school. He also takes advantage of activities offered through the nearby National Ability Center. “This move benefited our son,” she says.

Their daughter started first grade this fall at the Park City Day School, another independent school. Her status as a transplant has not hindered her ability to make friends. “There are a lot of new kids in the school,” says Ms. Burky. “She is definitely not alone.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the name of the school that Amy Burky's daughter attends and to clarify her son's involvement with the National Ability Center.

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