MONROE — Many anticipated the COVID-19 pandemic would drive down enrollment in public schools this year.
Now we’re getting a better idea of how much.
Across the state, 31,000 fewer students enrolled in public schools in September than in 2019. That’s a 2.8% drop from last year’s enrollment of 1.1 million, according to data released Wednesday by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
About one-third of the decline is attributed to kindergarten-age children not enrolling or delaying their start. Generally, districts across the state experienced larger declines in elementary grades, with enrollment climbing in some upper grades, according to the figures.
“We are not alone in this,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said in a statement. “As our nation continues to fight the spread of COVID-19, states across the country are seeing changes in K-12 enrollment as families make decisions about the safest and most effective learning environments for their children.”
In Snohomish County, all but one school district reported fewer students in September, the first month of the school year, compared to 2019.
Monroe schools recorded the largest decline, 946, followed by Snohomish with 598 fewer students and Mukilteo with 557 fewer.
The Monroe total tallied by the state does not take into account enrollment in two programs not conducted on campuses, which offer 16- to 20-year-olds a path toward a high school diploma and college degree through courses at community colleges.
“Families had to make a decision about the safest and most effective learning environments for their children,” said Tamara Krache, spokeswoman for the Monroe district. “Some families chose to home school or move to private schools for their students, others moved out of our district boundaries.
Student enrollments drop
“We have also seen a significant drop in kindergarten enrollment, like many districts throughout the nation, with families choosing to delay starting kindergarten for their students,” she said.
Arlington reported a drop of 511 students, of which 112, or roughly 22%, were kindergarten-age children, said district spokesman Gary Sabol. Another 165 students reported switching to home schooling or a private school, and 129 transferred out of the district or out of state, he said.
Officials hope some will return when the district begins in-person classes for kindergartners and first-graders on a hybrid schedule Monday.
“What we are hearing is that with all the uncertainty with COVID-19, parents are keeping their kids home until things calm down,” Sabol said. “As we reopen schools and we demonstrate we can keep kids and staff safe, we are hopeful these families will return.”
Mukilteo tallied a drop in kindergartners equivalent to 194 full-time students. It also registered an uptick in home schooling. The number of families choosing to home school rose from 119 in 2019 to 158 this year. In terms of students, the number climbed from 192 to 274, according to totals provided by the district.
Everett Public Schools had 528 fewer students, with kindergartners accounting for roughly 14% of the total.
“Obviously there is a lot of speculation about the why,” said Jeff Moore, the district’s chief financial officer. “Families have found other avenues for educating their young kids, or they are waiting for schools to reopen, or they figure their children are so close in age to the cutoff that they are holding them back for next year.”
The hope is that as parents gain a better understanding of the district’s distance learning program, they will feel comfortable sending their children to school, he said.
“We’ve heard a lot of accolades about the great improvement of our remote learning,” he said.
District budgets will be affected if enrollment remains down all year. The formula used by the state provides an amount of money per student. At the start of the year, the figure is derived from projected enrollment based on previous years. In January, the numbers are readjusted and, if student enrollment remains low, it could result in fewer dollars flowing to local schools.
For example, in Everett the district could wind up receiving $5.8 million less in state funding, Moore said. In anticipation of receiving fewer dollars, the district is not filling positions that come open as a result of retirement or resignations, he said.
Most districts are pursuing similar belt-tightening steps in anticipation of a potential drop in state aid.
Meanwhile, the Granite Falls School District is the only district that started the year with more students than it did in 2019.
They tallied 2,041 students in September, an increase of 49 from the prior year. Half of the increase is due to the fact that last year’s graduating class was small — 100 students — and this year’s kindergarten class is larger — 125. The rest are students from new developments in the area, some of whom had already enrolled last year but after September, said Marshall Kruse, director of business and operations.
“We are very fortunate to be in better shape than most of our surrounding districts,” he said.
But they are not immune to what’s occurring elsewhere.
Although overall student population started higher this year, enrollment in kindergarten was down by 32 students compared to September 2019. And, thus far in October, the district saw a loss of 25 students from elementary schools as parents decided to switch to home schooling.
“Every parent has a different threshold of what they want to endure this year,” he said. “They are choosing to have their children get their education in another form this year because things are not normal. I think all of us think all of these students will come back next year.”