Pandemic hits public school enrolment

Enrolment is declining in public schools around the U.S. as parents choose learning alternatives in response to the pandemic, including homeschooling, or else opt to postpone the start of kindergarten. According to preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) published in June, public school enrolment in 2020-21 shrank by 3% compared to the previous year, indicating the largest decline since the year 2000, according to researchers. The changes were most concentrated in pre-K, which experienced a 22% decrease, and kindergarten, which saw a drop of 9%. Changes also differed by grade groupings, with a 13% decrease in pre-K and kindergarten, a 3% dip in grades 1-8, and a slight increase of 0.4% in grades 9-12. Mississippi and Vermont posted the largest declines at 5%, according to the NCES analysis; Washington, New Mexico, Kentucky, New Hampshire and Maine recorded declines of 4% or more. The District of Columbia, South Dakota and Utah registered the smallest enrolment declines, at less than 1%. NCES Acting Commissioner Peggy Carr called the numbers "preliminary but concerning," and observed that the enrolment decreases were "widespread and affected almost every single state and every region of the country."

Declining enrolment affects every demographic group

An Education Week analysis of state data published in June also revealed a near-3% loss in the 2020-21 school year that was spread across the U.S., affecting almost every demographic group and concentrated in lower grades. Most of the enrolment decline took place in the early grades, according to the analysis, with at least four states losing more than a third of their pre-K students, the largest of which was Washington state, where pre-K enrolment dropped by 42% this year. Kindergarten enrolment was also substantively affected, with almost 20 states losing 10% or more of their kindergartners during the pandemic, compared to the 2019-20 school year. Hedy Chang, founder of Attendance Works, a national program that advocates for better public school attendance, observed of the decline in pre-K enrolment: “We know that showing up to kindergarten is a key year for laying the foundation for future success . . . It’s where kids have a chance to not only gain their basic academic concepts, but also, socialization and social-emotional development.”

Declines have implications for school funding

These declines – as well as raising concerns about how students who are missing from school rolls are learning - have implications for school funding. Public schools are typically funded by states on a per-pupil basis, with most of the money for K–12 education coming from state and local sources. Local funding is based primarily on property taxes, but state funding is generally allocated using a formula that examines, among other considerations, the number of students enrolled in each district and their education requirements. Prior-year enrolment is often used by states to allocate a district’s funding, and this means allocations for the 2021–22 school year, when enrolment numbers might be closer to normal, will be based on what districts recorded in the pandemic-afflicted fall.

Efforts to connect with families

Many school districts that lost enrolment during the pandemic are now seeing what they can do to connect with families with young children and have launched efforts including blanketing communities with yard signs and enlisting bus drivers to contact parents. In Spokane, Washington, for example, where enrolment fell by nearly 7% last fall, officials have been highlighting the district’s plan to shrink class sizes this fall, while assuring families that both full-time in-person instruction and a virtual option will be on offer. This strategy is seen by district officials as a selling point for families who want more individual attention for their children and for those with continuing fears about the coronavirus. “We want to create as much predictability and try to mitigate a sense of unknown and fear, to the greatest extent possible,” Superintendent Adam Swinyard said, “and just let our families know that we’re ready and eager to be back.”

Elsewhere, officials at Maryland’s public schools said solutions to counter the impact of the pandemic on learning could include adding more days to the school year and bolstering summertime instruction. “But what matters most is what we do with the extra time we have with students, we must be certain we are reinforcing core learning, it must be culturally relevant and it needs to be in small group sizes,” Carol Williamson, Maryland State Department of Education’s deputy state superintendent, said. It is however acknowledged that teacher burn-out could be a consequence of extended school years and extra tutoring. “Workforce is an issue; teachers are tired,” observed Joan Mele-McCarthy, a state board member. “Building a workforce is going to be an issue and for us to step outside the box.”

Enrolment growth continues at full-time virtual schools

Meanwhile, enrolment in full-time virtual and blended schools continues to climb, according to a report published in May by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) which said that a total of 477 full-time virtual schools enrolled 332,379 K-12 public school students during the 2019-20 school year. An additional 306 “blended” schools, where instruction takes place both online and face-to-face, enrolled a combined 152,530 students. Total enrolment in full-time virtual and blended schools has increased by more than 50,000 students since 2017-18. NEPC has published annual reviews of K-12 online education for the past decade, and all the available evidence indicates poor academic performance across the sector. In 2019-20, the graduation rate in full-time virtual schools was 54.6%, 30 percentage points lower than the national rate, and less than 43% of full-time virtual schools with ratings by their state accountability systems were deemed to be acceptable.

Richard Aston, Industry Slice

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