Public school enrollment drops statewide amid coronavirus pandemic

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“I’ve never seen enrollment statewide drop so sharply before, but on the other hand, I haven’t seen a situation like this. [pandemic] before, ”said Glenn Koocher, who served as executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees for more than two decades. “This situation is unique in many ways. I suspect there are some kids out of school – they’re home, can’t connect and are in limbo.

Jeffrey Riley, state education commissioner, sounded the alarm at the meeting over the growing plight of public school students learning at home as many experience a sense of isolation and deteriorating mental health , which he says could worsen during the winter months if districts don’t. return to class or find ways to connect more intentionally with their students. He said he will present recommendations to the council next month to help.

“I think some people have seen the very worrying data on emergency room visits, in terms of our children’s mental health, skyrocket,” he said. “It’s a national emergency. This is also reflected here in Massachusetts. . . . We are just seeing a huge increase in mental health issues occurring. “

Declining enrollment can result in significant financial losses for local districts. Most state aid is distributed per student, which could exacerbate financial difficulties in districts that lose large numbers of students.

The sharpest drop has occurred in the lower grades, as many families have chosen to keep their children enrolled in private preschool programs even if it means delaying kindergarten by a year. Kindergarten enrollment is down almost 12% and public preschool enrollment is down 30%. These two grade levels combined account for almost half of the overall decline in enrollment statewide.

Cathy Knowlton of Princeton bypassed the Wachusett Regional School District and instead sent her daughter to a private kindergarten about half an hour away because the the local school system conducts all online learning.

“She is thriving and she is learning, Knowlton said. “It’s hard to believe she would have the same results in a totally remote situation.”

The data confirms the accumulation of anecdotal evidence in recent months suggesting that families across the state have bailed out public schools over concerns that distance learning is lackluster and various reports that private schools with Full-time classrooms have seen an increase in enrollment.

According to the data, some 13,166 public school students were transferred to private schools this fall, compared to 7,299 transfers the year before. Many families are also trying homeschooling this year, with 7,188 students withdrawing from public schools to pursue an education directed and chosen by their parents or another adult, up from 802 the previous year.

The return of families to public schools is the subject of debate.

Laura Kelley, from Duxbury, decided to keep her 6-year-old son at a private Montessori school, where he attends grade one, rather than send him back to the local school system.

“It worked perfectly and we will keep it there for the long term,” she said. “We are invested.

Martin Zwierlein, from Belmont, said he didn’t know what to do next year because his son was doing well in first grade at a private school.

“I would love for him to come back to the local school system – that’s the main reason we chose to live in Belmont,” he said. “I’m having trouble with the decision.

The enrollment report follows months of appeals to local districts by Governor Charlie Baker to get more students back into classrooms. Currently, more than half of the state’s students learn at home, while many other students divide their time between classroom lessons and at home. Very few neighborhoods are open in person full time.

Baker and other state officials say school transmission of COVID-19 has been rare in Massachusetts and that the risk of harm to students who do not attend school in person is significant to the both in terms of academic losses and in terms of the toll that social isolation places on them. Mental Health.

But teachers’ unions, other education advocates and some parents remain concerned about safety.

“Despite COVID, children should be educated as much as possible,” said James Peyser, Secretary of State for Education, at the state council meeting ahead of the presentation. “The further into the school year, the clearer it becomes that the quantity and quality of online learning is far below what normally happens in a classroom.

He added, “Ultimately, we need to redouble our efforts to reopen classrooms for in-person instruction, both now and as we prepare for the New Year.”

Many urban and suburban districts have suffered a huge impact on enrollment.

In Boston Public Schools and its District Charter Schools, where nearly all students learn at home, about 2,500 fewer students are enrolled this year compared to last year, resulting in an overall enrollment of 50 690.

Newton lost 755 students, bringing enrollment down to 12,024. Brookline has 886 fewer students, with enrollment dropping to 6,891. And Somerville has lost 248 students, with an overall enrollment of 4,691.

A spokesperson for the Boston school said that the district has seen fewer new students enroll this year than in previous years, but fewer transfer students. The district’s enrollment count is also slightly higher than the state count.

The defection of families from public schools threw a sort of unexpected lifeline for many ailing Catholic schools, which faced an uncertain future earlier this year.

This spring, the Archdiocese of Boston braced for the loss of more than 5,700 students as families removed their children for financial reasons. But over the summer, as public school teachers’ unions successfully sought to delay the start of fall classes and pressured districts to keep classrooms closed, enrollment in Catholic schools rebounded, said Catholic schools superintendent Thomas Carroll.

“Our phones in 100 Catholic schools turned on and didn’t turn off until the end of October,” Carroll said, resulting in the arrival of 4,300 new students. “The big draw for parents in public schools was that we offered in-person instruction. Right now, only two of our 100 schools do not because of the neighborhood’s extraordinary transmission rates. “

The total number of enrollments in the 100 schools of the Archdiocese amounts to 31,153 students, a decrease of 1,400 compared to the previous year. This roughly matches the declines the Archdiocese has struggled with for years.

Keeping classrooms open also didn’t compromise safety, Carroll said, noting that schools have had around 30 cases of COVID-19 among 35,500 students, faculty and staff.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on twitter @globevaznis.



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