Enrollment drops worry public schools as pandemic persists

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida (AP) - Rather than waiting to see how her children's public school in Florida would teach students this fall, Erica Chao enrolled her two daughters in a private school that seemed better positioned to be online during the uncertainty of coronavirus online Teaching pandemic lessons.
The virtual class Emily, 8, and Annabelle, 6, received that spring when they were enrolled in an elementary school in Miami-Dade County became “free classes for everyone,” Chao said. In contrast, the private school classes grab the girls' attention and their mother no longer worries about them falling behind if she doesn't go to school with them at home.
"I was able to go out for the first time since March," said Chao.
Parents across the country have faced similar decisions about whether to keep their children in public schools as the pandemic extends into a new school year. Some opted for private or charter schools. Others devote themselves to homeschooling, hiring tutors to oversee the “learning pods” for multiple families, or trying to balance their children's education with work as school hours and technology change constantly.
Such personal choices could exacerbate the financial problems of public school systems, which receive fixed government funding for each enrolled student, who is the vast majority. With preliminary numbers showing unexpected declines in enrollment in many places, school officials used letters, phone calls, and door-to-door volunteers to persuade parents to register their children ahead of the fall this year census.
The superintendent of Georgia's fifth largest district explained the financial implications on YouTube after only 2,912 students were enrolled in virtual kindergarten classes as of mid-September. Clayton County's public schools typically welcome 3,500 to 3,600 new kindergarten teachers.
"Kindergarten parents, wherever you are, remember ... if you enroll your child in kindergarten this year it means we will have financial support next year," said Superintendent Morcease Beasley, explaining that it means less student service who would start in first grade fall 2021.
Similar appeals have come from other public education systems, where fewer students have appeared online or in person over the past month, particularly in the lower grades. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school system in the country, the number of kindergartens rose from 42,912 to 36,914 in the fall, a decrease of 14%. In Nashville, Tennessee, there are around 1,800 students, or 37% fewer, enrolled in public kindergarten.
"If families aren't enrolled this week, we want them to be enrolled next week, next month, as soon as possible for the good of their children," said Colorado Governor Jared Polis two days ahead of the state's scheduled attendance last week.
The governor encouraged parents to enroll their children in another district if they were dissatisfied with the quality of distance learning courses offered last semester. He said education is "not to be taken lightly".
"Don't just think you're home schooling because you're giving your child a book all day and leaving them at home," Polis said.
In states where education funding is given on a per-student formula, the loss of a small number of students to schools adds up. Miami-Dade County had 12,518 fewer students at the end of September than in the fall of 2019, three-quarters of them missing from kindergarten through third grade. Since Florida gives schools about $ 7,800 for each student, the country's fourth largest district will lose about $ 97,640,000.
Lawmakers and state education officials seek temporary funding mechanisms, while districts prepare for future deficits when enough families leave public schools. The Texas Education Agency gave districts six weeks to complete their official censuses so that schools "can make operational and budget adjustments based on clearer information." California legislature agreed to use last year's enrollment numbers in calculating the money schools would receive that school year.
In Palm Beach County, Florida, where the school district is the largest employer, Erica Whitfield, a school board member, told a board meeting in September that she was "not afraid" that lower enrollment would ultimately lead to layoffs. The district had 5,471 or 2.8% fewer students that fall.
"I've looked at the homeschooling numbers. I've watched people go to private schools. And I know it's bigger than ever," said Whitfield.
Many school districts are hoping to get students back when face-to-face tuition resumes and, in the meantime, contain the budget hit by improving virtual tuition. However, fewer dollars on teacher salaries, computers, and classroom equipment could compound the problems that are causing parents to look for other options during the pandemic.
Wealthier families may have chosen private schools or homeschooling because they didn't like the ready-made curricula that many public school systems use for online learning and are unlikely to return to public schools anytime soon, according to Michael, professor of education at the University of Wisconsin Apple said.
However, the decline in enrollments that schools are seeing can't just be attributed to wealthy families choosing other options, Apple said. The children of poor, homeless or immigrant parents who live illegally in the country face hurdles such as lack of internet access, computers or a suitable study space, he said.
Apple expects the number of people enrolled to decrease during future waves of the coronavirus, when teens need jobs to support their families or when they are responsible for younger siblings.
"This crisis is national and indeed international," he said.
Carla Engle moved to Williamson County, Tennessee for the school system but said her kids didn't learn anything after classes went virtual last March. She was equally unimpressed with the online program the school system offered for parents who did not feel safe sending their children to an all-school this fall.
Engle took her seventh and eighth grades from her public school and enrolled them in an online-only Connections Academy school.
“It's all heartbreaking. I called the headmaster to check me out and she and I both cried, "said Engle." I love the teachers. They love my children as much as I love my children. "
Ashraf Khlil of Washingon and Travis Loller of Nashville, Tennessee contributed to this report.

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