- The Washington Times - Monday, November 2, 2020

Something’s missing this fall from the nation’s K-12 public schools: thousands of students.

Education officials nationwide have reported enrollment declines in the first fall semester since the novel coronavirus outbreak. Students who were expected to return are staying away in droves, raising concerns about where they have gone and whether they will ever return.

“It’s happening. School enrollment is dropping everywhere,” said Corey A. DeAngelis, school choice director for the libertarian Reason Foundation. “Everywhere there’s data out, we’re seeing 3% to 5% drops, and sometimes larger.”

Among the most dramatic declines was in Manchester, New Hampshire, where the school district reported a 10% drop as of Oct. 22 after reopening under a COVID-19 regime of remote instruction and moving to phase in a hybrid of remote and in-person learning.

“I think that’s directly related to COVID, and us being in the hybrid situation,” Manchester Assistant Superintendent Amy Allen told the Union Leader.

In Texas, about 250,000 students, or 4% of the school-age population, have gone missing from the K-12 system this year, compared with the 2019-2020 enrollment, according to state data analyzed by Texas 2036.

In Arizona, public school enrollment dropped by about 5%, or 50,000 students, as reported by local news. In North Carolina, the state Department of Public Instruction recorded a decline of 62,000 students, or nearly 5%, versus last year’s student population across almost all districts.

Colorado has not released state data, but the downturn was significant enough for Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, to urge parents at a Sept. 30 press conference to send their children back to school. He said enrollment was down and “that concerns me greatly.”

“While we don’t have the full picture, we know that some parents are still deciding to sit out the school year for a number of reasons,” Mr. Polis said. “I really want all those parents who are watching this to take another look at enrolling their kid in school.”

Where declines have been reported, the biggest drop-off has been in kindergarten as parents opt to “red shirt” their children, starting them a year later rather than risk infection with in-person instruction or wrestle with keeping their 5-year-olds engaged on Zoom.

“All across the income spectrum, parents are opting out of online kindergarten,” Jenny Hontz, communications director for the Los Angeles advocacy group Speak Up, told The 74, an education website. “The common thread is that most people don’t think online learning works well for very young kids.”

North Carolina reported a 13% drop, or about 15,700, in would-be kindergartners, representing one-quarter of the state enrollment decline, The Fayetteville Observer reported.

Surges in home schooling

Where are the students going? Indications are that those frustrated with virtual classroom experience have sought private, charter or home school, while others may have taken a coronavirus gap year. Some may have dropped off the academic radar entirely.

The 2020 academic year began with remote learning as the rule, not the exception. About 74% of the nation’s 100 largest districts began the fall semester with remote learning only, according to Education Week.

A National Parents Union poll of 1,140 K-12 public school parents found that 76% reported their children were doing either full- or part-time virtual learning. Of those, 58% were entirely online, but their opinions were split on in-person versus remote education.

Most of those polled, 54%, said the priority for schools should be “providing access to consistent, high-quality remote or online learning,” while 37% said schools should be getting students “back into the classroom this school year and implementing health and safety measures.”

The survey also found that 38% thought their children were learning less than they would have in school, and 35% gave their districts grades of C or lower for their reopening plans — hence the interest in alternatives.

North Carolina’s 13% decline in kindergarten enrollment has coincided with a 7% increase in charter school pupils. Only one-quarter of the state’s charters reported an overall drop, said Terry Stoops, vice president for research of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Although some parents have sought out online charter schools to improve the remote experience, others are looking to move their children back into traditional classrooms.

“Whether we like it or not, one of the main benefits of the public school system was for a long time until this year the child care services that were provided that aren’t being provided in so many districts this year,” said Mr. DeAngelis. “So families are looking at that and saying, ‘Maybe it makes more sense to pay for a private school. Maybe the charter schools are more likely to be reopened in person.’”

Home-school organizations have also reported increases. The Texas Home School Coalition reported on its website a 400% increase over August 2019 in the number of families withdrawing from public schools and switching to home schooling.

“This follows another record-setting month in July, which saw a 1,500 percent increase over 2019,” the coalition said in a Sept. 9 press release.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education in Seattle said in an Oct. 16 report, after districts issued their first round of enrollment figures, “we are learning that some affluent families are leaving their neighborhood schools altogether.”

“These parents may have gotten fed up with remote learning and enrolled in alternative options they could afford,” said authors Robin Lake and Bree Dusseault. “In other districts, low-income families have fallen entirely off the map.”

They pointed to the Los Angeles Unified School District, where kindergarten enrollment dropped by 6,000 students, three times lower than previous years.

“These students might be struggling to connect to online classes, or they may have had their lives uprooted due to the pandemic or recent economic hardship,” the report said.

D.C. Public Schools reported a drop-off of about 4,500 students enrolled in September versus the same time last year, as the academic year began with all-remote learning.

Plans to move to a hybrid system of remote and in-person learning for some elementary students were postponed Monday after a teachers union sickout.

Washington Teachers’ Union President Elizabeth A. Davis said in a statement that the teachers had spoken “loudly and clearly” with their no-confidence vote that they “do not have faith that the DCPS plans to reopen our schools are in the best interest of students.”

Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee warned at an Oct. 22 press conference that some of the youngest students were falling behind after the spring COVID-19 shutdowns and that learning at home is “not a working solution for every student and every family.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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