Emily Chao, standing, watches as her sister Anabelle, works on a writing exercise after they finished remote learning for the day, as their mom Erica sits, back left, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, at their home in North Miami Beach, Fla. Rather than wait to see how the Miami-Dade school system would handle instruction this fall, Erica Chao enrolled her two daughters in a private school that seemed better positioned to provide remote learning than their public elementary school was when the coronavirus first reached Florida. (AP Photo / Wilfredo Lee)

Emily Chao, standing, watches as her sister Anabelle, works on a writing exercise after they finished remote learning for the day, as their mom Erica sits, back left, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, at their home in North Miami Beach, Fla. Rather than wait to see how the Miami-Dade school system would handle instruction this fall, Erica Chao enrolled her two daughters in a private school that seemed better positioned to provide remote learning than their public elementary school was when the coronavirus first reached Florida. (AP Photo / Wilfredo Lee)

Nationwide enrollment drops worry public schools as pandemic persists

By FREIDA FRISARO

Associated Press

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Rather than wait to see how her children’s Florida public school would teach students this fall, Erica Chao enrolled her two daughters in a private school that seemed better positioned to provide instruction online during the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic.

The virtual lessons that Emily, 8, and Annabelle, 6, received in the spring while enrolled at a Miami-Dade County elementary school became a “free for all,” Chao said. The private school classes, by contrast, hold the girls’ attention, and their mother no longer worries they will fall behind if she doesn’t attend school with them at home.

“For the first time since March, I was able to walk away,” Chao said.

Parents across the country have faced similar choices about whether to keep their children in public schools as the pandemic extends into a new academic year. Some opted for private or charter schools. Others are dedicating themselves to homeschooling, hiring tutors to oversee multi-family “learning pods” or struggling to balance their children’s educations with work when school times and technology keep changing.

Such personal decisions could exacerbate the financial problems of public school systems that receive a set amount of state funding for every student they enroll, which are the vast majority. With preliminary figures showing unexpected enrollment declines in many places, school officials used letters, phone calls and volunteers going door-to-door to persuade parents to register their youngsters before this month’s fall student census.

The superintendent of Georgia’s fifth-largest district spelled out the financial implications on YouTube after only 2,912 pupils were enrolled in virtual kindergarten classes by mid-September. Clayton County’s public schools usually greet 3,500 to 3,600 new kindergarteners.

“Kindergarten parents, wherever you are, remember this….When you enroll your child in kindergarten this year, that means we get funding next year,” Superintendent Morcease Beasley said, explaining that would mean fewer services for students starting first grade in fall 2021.

Similar appeals came from other public education systems where fewer students showed up either online or in person last month, especially in the lower grades. The Los Angeles Unified School District, the country’s second-largest school system, saw kindergarten enrollment go from 42,912 to 36,914 this fall, a decrease of 14%. In Nashville, Tennessee, public kindergarten enrollment is down about 1,800 students, or 37%.

“If families are not enrolled this week, we want them enrolled next week, next month, as soon as they can, for the benefit of their kids,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said two days before the state’s scheduled attendance count last week.

The governor encouraged parents to sign up their children in a different district if they were unhappy with the quality of the distance learning offered last semester, saying education was “not something to be taken lightly.”

“Don’t just think you’re homeschooling because you’re giving your kid a book all day and leaving them at home,” Polis said.

In states where education funding is awarded under a per-pupil formula, losing even a small number of students adds up for schools. Miami-Dade County had 12,518 fewer students at the end of September than in fall 2019, three-quarters of them missing from pre-kindergarten to third grade, officials said. Since Florida gives schools roughly $7,800 for every student, the nation’s fourth-largest district stands to lose about $97,640,000.

Lawmakers and state education officials are scrambling to come up with temporary funding mechanisms while districts brace for future shortfalls, if enough families pull out of public schools. The Texas Education Agency gave districts six more weeks to do their official counts so schools could “make operational and budget adjustments based upon clearer information.” California lawmakers agreed to use last year’s enrollment numbers when calculating the money schools would get this academic year.

In Florida’s Palm Beach County, where the school district is the largest employer, school board member Erica Whitfield said during a September board meeting that she was “beyond terrified” that lower enrollment will eventually lead to layoffs. The district had 5,471, or 2.8% fewer students this fall.

“I’ve been watching the homeschooling numbers. I’ve been watching people leaving to go to private schools. And I know it’s larger than it’s ever been,” Whitfield said.

Many school districts hope to get students back when in-person classes resume and to stem the hit to their budgets in the meantime by improving virtual instruction. But having fewer dollars for teacher salaries, computers and classroom equipment could exacerbate the problems that are causing parents to seek out other options during the pandemic.

More affluent families may have chosen private schools or homeschooling because they did not like the pre-packaged curricula that many public school systems are using for online learning, and they are unlikely to return to public schools any time soon, University of Wisconsin education professor Michael Apple said.

But the enrollment declines schools are seeing can’t just be attributed to affluent families choosing other options, Apple said. The children of poor, homeless or immigrant parents living in the country illegally face hurdles such as lack of internet access, computers or a suitable space for learning, he said.

Apple foresees enrollment decreases expanding to upper grades during future waves of the coronavirus if teenagers need to get jobs to help support their families or are left in charge of younger siblings.

“This crisis is national and, in fact, it is international,” he said.

Carla Engle moved to Williamson County, Tennessee for the school system, but said her children learned nothing after classes went virtual last March. She was equally unimpressed with the online program the school system offered for parents who didn’t feel safe sending their children to a brick-and-mortar school this fall.

Engle took her seventh and eighth graders out of their public school and enrolled them in an online-only school Connections Academy.

“It is all-around heartbreaking. I called the principal to unenroll, and she and I both cried,” Engle said. “I love the teachers. They love my kids just like I love my kids.”

More in News

The Aurora Borealis glows over the Mendenhall Glacier in 2014. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Aurora forecast

Forecasts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute for the week of Nov. 27

FILE - Freight train cars sit in a Norfolk Southern rail yard on Sept. 14, 2022, in Atlanta. The Biden administration is saying the U.S. economy would face a severe economic shock if senators don't pass legislation this week to avert a rail worker strike. The administration is delivering that message personally to Democratic senators in a closed-door session Thursday, Dec. 1.  (AP Photo / Danny Karnik)
Congress votes to avert rail strike amid dire warnings

President vows to quickly sign the bill.

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire
Juneau state Sen. Jesse Kiehl, left, gives a legislative proclamation to former longtime Juneau Assembly member Loren Jones, following Kiehl’s speech at the Juneau Chamber of Commerce’s weekly luncheon Thursday at the Juneau Moose Family Center.
Cloudy economy, but sunnier political outlook lie ahead for lawmakers, Kiehl says

Juneau’s state senator tells Chamber of Commerce bipartisan majority a key to meaningful action

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police calls for Friday, Dec. 2

This report contains information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Alaska State Troopers logo.
Hunter credits community members for Thanksgiving rescue

KENAI — On Thanksgiving, Alaska Wildlife Troopers released a dispatch about a… Continue reading

The snowy steps of the Alaska State Capitol are scheduled to see a Nativity scene during an hour-long gathering starting at 4 p.m. Friday which, in the words of a local organizer, is “for families to start their Gallery Walk in a prayerful manner.” But two Outside groups dedicated to placing Nativity scenes at as many state capitol buildings as possible are proclaiming it a victory against the so-called “war on Christmas.” The head of Alaska’s Legislative Affairs Agency, which has administrative oversight of the building, said the gathering is legal since a wide variety of events occur all the time, often with religious overtones, but the placement of a fixed or unattended display is illegal. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire)
Scene and heard: Religious freedom groups say Nativity event makes statement

State officials say happening planned for Capitol relatively common and legal.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police calls for Thursday, Dec. 1

This report contains information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Steve Lewis, foreground, and Stephen Sorensen from the Alaska State Review Board scan ballots from precincts where they were hand counted at the Division of Elections office Nov. 15. Board officials spent the period between the Nov. 8 election and its certification Wednesday performing about 20 different to verify the results. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Election certified, but challenges pending

Outcome of at least two state House races unknown, which may determine chamber’s leadership

Errol Culbreth and Scotlyn Beck (Polichinelles) rehearse ahead of Juneau Dance Theatre’s production of “The Nutcracker.” The immensely popular ballet is coming to the Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé Friday through Sunday. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
Juneau Dance Theatre is ready to get cracking

“The Nutcracker” is set to run Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Most Read