Students return to D.C.-area schools, but not in pre-pandemic numbers

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Virtual school wasn’t working for Amani Walker.

The now-7-year-old was a prekindergartner at a D.C. charter school when the pandemic began. All of her learning was happening through a computer screen, and her mother, Crystal Gray, noticed she was struggling.

So, with the help of a scholarship, Gray transferred her daughter to a private school. But Amani fell behind. “She was lacking in reading, she was lacking in math,” said Gray, 40, a federal government worker and board member for local parent advocacy group PAVE (Parents Amplifying Voices in Education). And when Gray asked for additional resources, the new school wouldn’t deliver, she said.

Then Gray decided to give traditional public schools a try. She enrolled Amani at Watkins Elementary.

“I just noticed that they really catered to her,” Gray said, noting that Watkins provides Amani with small-group instruction, twice-weekly tutoring and other support. “It makes me optimistic, because I think DCPS had such a bad rap at one time, especially when I was growing up in D.C.”

Amani is one of hundreds of children who came to the city’s traditional public school system this year, fueling an enrollment burst that has helped it overcome a pandemic-era enrollment slump. Citywide, enrollment in the traditional public and charter sectors hit a milestone 96,572 students this year, according to preliminary, unaudited data. It’s the highest enrollment recorded in 15 years, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) declared in November.

Across the Washington region, other school systems have also made gains since the first two years of the public health crisis, when enrollment plummeted. But most have not yet made a full recovery.

Data from Montgomery County and Prince George’s County public schools — Maryland’s two largest districts — shows that enrollment is up but hasn’t reached pre-pandemic levels. And although school enrollment is on the rise in Northern Virginia, no system has rebounded fully, and officials warn that districts are unlikely to do so, leading to reductions in funding and staffing this year and in coming years.

Before the pandemic, 51,037 students were enrolled in D.C.’s traditional public schools, according to city data. Numbers fell to 49,890 during the first year of the pandemic, then again to 49,035 during the 2021-2022 school year.

But this year, enrollment surpassed 50,000 students, preliminary data shows.

“These numbers are preliminary, but they are heartening,” Christina Grant, D.C.’s state superintendent of education, said when the numbers were revealed last month. “They really do reinforce what we know: The place for our children — the best place for our children — [is] in schools.”

Experts have pointed to falling birthrates, as well as parents who left the District or pulled their children out of schools during the pandemic, to explain slipping enrollment. As the public health crisis persisted, D.C. public schools saw the largest drops in the prekindergarten years — enrollment slumped by nearly 6 percent.

But those numbers have rebounded. Officials said pre-K3 and pre-K4 enrollment jumped by more than 6 percent and 5 percent, respectively, over the previous year. School system leaders also said they saw growth in ninth- and 10th-grade enrollment — although experts say it is typical to see enrollment spike around ninth grade, a common transition point for families who want to switch feeder patterns.

Enrollment in D.C.’s charter sector — composed of 69 operators that educate almost half of the city’s public school students — has held steady. That sector has grown almost every year since the Office of the State Superintendent of Education started its citywide student count in 2007. Unlike in other school systems, the number of students in D.C. charter schools has grown since the pandemic — from 43,518 during the 2019-2020 school year to 46,449 this year, an almost 7 percent jump.

Much of that growth has happened because the sector regularly opens new schools and adds new programs, said Tomeika Bowden, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Public Charter School Board. The board also saw 26 charter campuses or programs shutter between 2012 and 2020, according to its website.

“We have a whole entire process around schools engaging communities and engaging parents, families about the kinds of programs they would like to see in the city,” Bowden said. The Riverseed School — a D.C. Wildflower Public Charter School site — for example, opened this year and is run by two teachers who created a Montessori program unique to its community in Ward 7, she said.

Elsewhere, Montgomery County Public Schools reported that 160,554 students enrolled this school year, compared with 158,231 students last year. That number, however, is roughly 4,700 below that recorded in the 2019-2020 school year, when 165,267 students were enrolled.

Jessica Baxter, a spokeswoman for the school system, said that when campuses reopened for in-person learning, officials reached out to the 6,000 or so students who left while schools were online during the early part of the pandemic. Many of their families said they had moved out of the county or transitioned to private or home schooling, Baxter said. Roughly 1,000 of the students who left came back.

Prince George’s County Public Schools has seen a similar trend. This school year, the system reported an enrollment of 130,798 students, an increase of about 2,000 over last year’s reported enrollment of 128,777. But that is roughly 5,200 students fewer than in the 2019-2020 school year, with a reported enrollment of 135,962 students.

Statewide enrollment figures will be released in January, according to a spokesperson from the Maryland State Department of Education.

Most schools in Prince George’s County, and across the Washington region, restarted in-person instruction during the 2021-2022 school year. By that point, enrollment had dropped in most places — mirroring national trends.

Schools across the country experienced an unprecedented decline in public school enrollment, most starkly in early grades such as kindergarten and first grade, during the fall 2020-2021 school year, said Thomas Dee, a Stanford University economist and researcher. Schools that chose to offer only remote instruction saw the largest declines, he said.

National data shows that many children still have not returned, Dee said, and “there’s a bit of mystery” about where they’ve gone.

A report from the American Enterprise Institute — a right-leaning think tank — similarly found that schools that offered the most amount of remote options saw bigger declines in enrollment. School districts surrounding D.C. tended to teach remotely longer than districts elsewhere, likely contributing to declines from the beginning of the pandemic, said Nat Malkus, a senior fellow and the deputy director of education policy at the institute. Public school students are gradually returning, he said, but “more shallowly than a lot of school districts would hope for.”

Data from the Census Bureau shows that many Americans moved during the pandemic, suggesting that the reduced enrollment probably wasn’t just a flight from public schools, Dee said. In Maryland, public school enrollment fell by about 2.7 percent during the pandemic, he said, but at the same time, the state’s school-aged population decreased by 0.6 percent.

Demographic shifts are also affecting public school enrollment in Virginia. Loudoun County Public Schools has 82,082 students this year, according to the Virginia Education Department — an increase over the past two school years, but a roughly 2 percent drop compared with the 2019-2020 school year, when Loudoun enrolled 83,933 students. Most of the loss appears to be happening in kindergarten and ninth grade, said Wayde Byard, a schools spokesman.

“While we did note an increase in the number of families who moved [away] or elected to enroll their children in private school or home school in 2020, our overall school population is also aging,” Byard said. He added that, overall, Loudoun is graduating more students each year than it is adding new kindergartners. “This speaks to Loudoun’s slowing birthrate and the overall aging of Loudoun’s population, particularly females in the childbearing age group,” he said.

The school system has eliminated 400 full-time staffing positions because of reduced enrollment and is anticipating a roughly $8.2 million drop in state funding for fiscal 2023 compared with what it would have been under pre-pandemic enrollment levels, Byard said. State funding for Virginia public schools is tied to student-body size.

Nearby, Fairfax County Public Schools, the state’s largest school system, boasts a student population of 180,127 this school year, per Virginia Education Department data. Although it represents an increase from the previous two school years, it falls far short of the last pre-pandemic enrollment numbers: 188,930 students in the 2019-2020 school year. The drop of nearly 9,000 students represents a loss of roughly 4.7 percent of Fairfax’s pre-pandemic student body.

Between the end of the last school year and October, Fairfax lost about 1,000 middle-schoolers, close to 400 preschoolers and slightly fewer than 100 elementary-schoolers, according to an online data set documenting student enrollment data. The system added nearly 900 new high school students.

Another database showed that, between the end of the last school year and the start of this one, the system overall lost roughly 12,300 students but gained roughly 15,900, meaning Fairfax schools saw a net increase of around 3,600 students. Of those who departed, nearly 42 percent opted for a public school elsewhere in Virginia or the United States. Roughly 8 percent chose a school “outside the United States,” while 7 percent switched to a private or parochial school and 2 percent opted for home schooling. Other, much smaller numbers of students left for reasons including “financial hardship,” “employment,” “family” and “achievement problems.”

Asked how the shift in enrollment will affect funding and staffing levels, Fairfax schools spokeswoman Julie Moult pointed to a document detailing the district’s approved budget for fiscal 2023. A page of that document notes that Fairfax decreased its number of full-time positions by 424.3 for 2023, adjusting to a corresponding reduction of 917.7 positions for student enrollment. It also says Fairfax’s “net savings” from updated enrollment projections will be $88.2 million.

“Enrollment projections reflect the anticipated ‘new normal’ as a result of significant declines in public education resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic,” the document states. “Staff continues to monitor enrollment trends and will recommend budgetary adjustments as necessary.”

In Arlington Public Schools, the student population this year totals 27,582, per state data: an increase from the prior two school years but below the enrollment of 28,151 recorded for the last pre-pandemic school year. Arlington schools spokesman Frank Bellavia said the district has not seen a decrease in funding or staff.

“Rather, we have increased resources for schools to help support students and provide extra assistance for both academics and mental health,” he said. “We have reduced classes, provided additional math and reading support at elementary and secondary schools [and] increased staffing for special education students.”

Enrollment shrank in Grades 3, 6, 7, 9 and 11, but rose for Grades 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 10 and 12, Bellavia said. He speculated that some families may have relocated because their jobs allow them to work remotely. The school system is also aware that other families chose private schools or home schooling.

Alexandria City Public Schools saw similar enrollment trends. The student body this year totals 16,089, an increase from the previous two school years but a 1.3 percent decline from pre-pandemic enrollment. Alexandria’s executive director of facilities, Erika Gulick, said in a statement that the district is seeing slight decreases in middle-school enrollment. And after years of failing to meet projections, kindergarten enrollment is rising again.

Gulick attributed Alexandria’s loss of students to broader regional trends, including slowing population growth across Northern Virginia. She said that the district’s 10-year projections are still being finalized but that “at this time … [it] does not anticipate growth back to pre-pandemic levels.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2022/12/05/dc-maryland-virginia-school-enrollment-pandemic/