May 21, 2024

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School enrollment: Number of students in public schools drops as parents turned to home-schooling, private schools during pandemic

13 min read
School enrollment: Number of students in public schools drops as parents turned to home-schooling, private schools during pandemic

Before Principal Samuel Karlin’s students moved into a new school building in the fall of 2010, Chicopee was forced to build a four-classroom addition because there wasn’t enough room for all the children.

A dozen years later, enrollment has declined so much at Chicopee’s Belcher School two of those rooms are now being used for preschool classes and there is space for more.

Nationwide, schools have been seeing a decline in enrollment for several years. But when COVID-19 hit, the dip became a deep plunge and many are not seeing a resurgence, even though classrooms have reopened and have pretty much returned to normal since the spring when masking, social distancing and testing requirements were largely abandoned.

The drop is being attributed to everything from families switching to private school or continuing with remote education to a surge in home-schooling in response to the pandemic. Nationally, grades K-12 enrollment has dropped 3{e4f787673fbda589a16c4acddca5ba6fa1cbf0bc0eb53f36e5f8309f6ee846cf} and trends show those who have been slower to abandon pandemic restrictions have seen a loss of as much as 4.4{e4f787673fbda589a16c4acddca5ba6fa1cbf0bc0eb53f36e5f8309f6ee846cf}, according to a U.S. News report.

But one of the biggest reasons for declines is nationwide population growth has been slowing for years due to lower birth rates and a decrease in net immigration. Between July 1, 2020, and July 1, 2021, the nation’s growth was just 0.1{e4f787673fbda589a16c4acddca5ba6fa1cbf0bc0eb53f36e5f8309f6ee846cf}, the slowest in history, due to decreased fertility and increased mortality, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“The projections show Chicopee is getting older so there are fewer kids and with COVID you had a rise of virtual, home-schooling and parochial schooling,” Assistant Superintendent Matthew Francis said.

A decade ago, Belcher School was bursting with enough children to require five classes each for kindergarten and first grade. Now there are three kindergarten and first-grade classes, keeping with statewide trends that show the biggest student declines are in the youngest grades.

In Chicopee, the drop isn’t just being seen in one school. Enrollment has been declining by about 100 students annually since the 2014-15 school year when the district hit a peak of 7,841 students. At the start of the 2019-20 school year, it was 7,286 and that plunged to 6,796 when the pandemic struck, Francis said.

The city had an enrollment study done recently to help with long-term planning and eventual redistricting. It predicted it would drop to 6,524 this year, but the latest numbers calculated in mid-November show enrollment is about 240 children higher at 6,762, he said.

“We are still 90 kids lower than where we were when we ended the year,” Francis said, explaining enrollment had increased to 6,850 by the spring of 2022 before children left for summer vacation.

But one of the reasons student numbers did not drop as much as expected is Chicopee expanded preschool from 250 to about 310 children this year by offering free, full-time classes for 4- and 3-year-olds for the first time. It also expanded preschool into two neighborhood elementary schools, Belcher and Fairview, he said.

All Massachusetts public schools take official enrollment on Oct. 1. The 2022-23 school year numbers released in December by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education show a slight increase in students but it is far lower than pre-COVID enrollments.

West Springfield Superintendent Vito Perrone is seeing the same trends. In the past five years, overall enrollment has dropped from 4,113 to 3,851 and kindergarten enrollment especially declined 21.5{e4f787673fbda589a16c4acddca5ba6fa1cbf0bc0eb53f36e5f8309f6ee846cf} in four years from 302 in the 2018-19 school year to 237 last year. In this school year, kindergarten enrollment has rebounded a little to 266 children.

The school district is a reflection of the trends across the country, with enrollment especially dropping in kindergarten, Perrone said.

Statewide, enrollment started declining an average of 2,500 students annually in the two years before March 2020 when schools closed on an emergency basis to stop the spread of what was then the new coronavirus, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education enrollment statistics show.

Student numbers dropped precipitously in the 2020-21 school year when COVID-19 vaccines were not available and classes in most public schools were taught virtually or in a combination of remotely and in-person to allow for social distancing. That enrollment, which was 911,465, or 37,363 students fewer than the previous year, barely budged in September 2021 when schools reopened with full in-person classes and mostly with universal masking and other precautions in place.

The official enrollment, which is taken every year on Oct. 1, has stayed pretty much static for this school year with 913,735 students attending public schools this year.

Most superintendents said they do not expect those numbers to return to pre-COVID totals this school year even though COVID-19 protocols have been suspended since the spring.

Statistics show statewide enrollment stayed steady for about eight years, averaging 954,500, until the 2018-19 school year. That plateau came after a steady decline in students that started in the 2002-03 school year when there were 983,313 students enrolled statewide in public schools. The number of students dropped an average of 4,000 annually for about eight years.

In Springfield alone, enrollment has dropped more than 9{e4f787673fbda589a16c4acddca5ba6fa1cbf0bc0eb53f36e5f8309f6ee846cf} in the past five years. This year, there are 23,721 students attending the district and six years earlier there were some 25,600 students.

Springfield — which had one of the most conservative policies with nearly all classes held remotely until the state ordered public schools to return to some in-person learning in the spring of 2021 — lost nearly 870 students in the fall of 2020. When full in-person classes returned in September 2021, enrollment declined by another 440 children.

“It’s hard to say why but it is trending across the commonwealth,” Superintendent Daniel J. Warwick said. “The reasons are multi-faceted.”

The school district has been losing students to charter schools for two decades, but when Springfield closed classrooms because of the pandemic, more families turned to private schools which were among the few to continue in-person learning. Others have turned to home-schooling and a smaller number are moving out of Massachusetts to less-expensive states, he said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic also opened families’ eyes to other education options for their students outside the traditional public school setting,” said Azell Cavaan, chief communications officer for Springfield schools.

The student decline is most dramatic in the younger grades in most Western Massachusetts schools. In Springfield, preschool, kindergarten and 1st grades each declined by about 200 children in two years.

“It would be remiss to factor out the growing numbers of families choosing home-schooling or smaller, private school settings for their students and those who move out of Springfield,” Cavaan said.

Private and parochial schools did see some small increases in students but state numbers are showing the steepest increase is among parents who turned to home-schooling children when schools closed and opted to continue.

Pre-pandemic, there were 92 Springfield students home-schooled in the district and in 2020-21, a number that more than doubled to 221 but declined to 154 during the last school year. West Springfield saw home-schooled students increase from 48 to 110 in the 2020-12 school year and decline slightly to 93 last year. Ware, which returned to in-person schooling sooner, saw home-schooling students jump to 83 at the height of the pandemic and then drop to 55 when students returned to in-person learning in the past two school years.

State Department of Education home-schooling statistics, which are calculated on Jan. 1 instead of Oct. 1, show the number of students home-schooled annually remained at an average of 7,500 for at least five years. That number jumped to 17,127 for the 2020-21 school year but then dropped to 13,090 last year when all schools returned to in-person learning.

Gabriella Michaliszyn, part of the leadership team of the Western Mass Homeschoolers, said she saw a dramatic increase in the number of parents who joined their Facebook group over the past few years. Before the pandemic there were consistently about 850 people in the group; now there are 2,200.

The organization offers information, networking and answers questions parents have about technical issues such as how to submit applications to local districts. They also work together to provide socialization opportunities for students, said Michaliszyn, of Westfield, who has been home-schooling her children for 10 years.

“A lot of what we are seeing is students have anxiety issues and they don’t want to go back to school,” she said.

Some parents are concerned about the sex education and LGBTQ+ curriculum taught in school, she said. Many others witnessed their students’ classes when they were learning from home and felt there was a lot of time wasted on discipline and other issues. Those parents felt they could teach better, more efficiently and fit more material into their children’s day, she said.

Becky Quinn started home-schooling her children, Jackson, 11, and Lincoln, 9, in 2020 when she felt remote learning did not give her students the structure they needed. The stay-at-home mom from Palmer said her sons now don’t want to go back.

“We absolutely love it and the freedom home-schooling has brought to the family is great,” she said.

She said she buys some lesson plans, finds other curricula for free online and typically picks and chooses what parts will best serve her children. She also gives her sons placement tests to ensure they are learning skills they need.

But home-schooling also allows her to focus on her children’s interests and have a little fun. For example, in December they put aside most of their traditional classes, except for math, and did a study of Christmas carols to teach about everything from reading, writing, research, social studies and other topics. Her sons selected the program from a list of options she offered.

Quinn said she was interested in home-schooling even before the pandemic, but her husband was not enthusiastic about the idea. He has changed his mind after seeing it in action during the pandemic.

Quinn said she mostly follows the public school schedule, taking off summers and holidays, but last summer her sons wanted to learn more about astronomy so she continued their science classes a few days a week,

The Western Mass Homeschooling Association has made it easier because it offers non-stop educational and fun activities to give students an opportunity to make and hang out with friends. Parents sometimes simply meet in a park and share ideas and advice while their children play together, Quinn said.

In Westfield, Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski confirmed the number of home-schooled children has grown in his district. Families who chose to teach their children must apply to their home district and submit a curriculum, but the School Department and School Committee cannot deny their application.

“On average the number of home-schoolers in Westfield was under 100. Last year (in 2020-2021) it was 250 and many of them have not returned,” he said. “The pandemic opened people’s eyes to home-schooling. I think some students liked it and we saw a lot, especially in the Russian and Ukraine populations.”

Last school year about 200 students were home-schooled, he said.

In Westfield, the region’s fourth-largest school district, enrollment had already been dropping by more than 100 students a year before COVID hit, as predicted by studies. Then, when students returned to school in the fall of 2020 under a hybrid plan that had 50{e4f787673fbda589a16c4acddca5ba6fa1cbf0bc0eb53f36e5f8309f6ee846cf} learning remotely one week and alternating to in-person the second week, the student body dropped a shocking 330 students, Czaporowski said.

The student population is inching upward but it is still lower than the 5,261 total tallied Oct. 1, 2019, before the pandemic and far lower than the nearly 6,000 Westfield Public students of a decade ago.

Westfield schools dropped to 4,774 students in fall of 2021 but by the end of March 2022, it increased by more than 100 students to 4,876. Much of the increase came from refugees, mainly from Ukraine and Afghanistan, but a handful also returned from home-schooling or private schools, Czaporowski said.

At the start of this school year, Westfield again bucked the trend, increasing to 4,942 students in November (although the official Oct. 1 enrollment count is 4,836). “It was not expected,” he said.

One of the reasons is the schools had a 53-student surge of children coming from other countries. While 35 were from Ukraine, which isn’t an anomaly since a fairly large number of Ukraine immigrants have settled in Westfield long before Russia invaded the country in February. What was a surprise was the other half of the new students hailed from a wide variety of countries including Guatemala and Moldova.

Czaporowski said enrollment would have likely dropped more if Westfield was not one of about 10 school districts statewide to apply to continue offering remote classes. Springfield and Pittsfield also have virtual schools.

Westfield Virtual School

Ann Farnham, math teacher at Westfield Virtual School, and principal Thomas Osborn checking with students. (Hoang ‘Leon’ Nguyen / The Republican)

Between 150 and 160 students in kindergarten through grade 8 were learning in the virtual school at the end of the 2021-22 school year and that has declined to 91 this year.

Interest is virtual school is now waning in the elementary grades, but is increasing for middle and high school grades so Westfield expanded to high school grades this year. It will likely stop offering the program for students in kindergarten to grade 5 next year simply because parents are not registering their children.

“I think we have learned early that K-5 kids do better in-person. At the high school kids can be successful in virtual learning,” he said.

The school, which is run by teachers who operate out of a separate building, generally serves students who found they were learning better online as well as those who are immunocompromised or live with family members who have medical conditions, he said.

“We wanted to keep Westfield kids in Westfield schools and there was a waiting list for virtual schools,” he said.

Czaporowski said he also likes that virtual students can still participate in sports and other after-school activities if they want so they can remain connected to peers and staff.

Currently, the state will only allow the district to accept local students into the virtual academy but Czaporowski said he would definitely be interested in taking students from neighboring districts if rules change in the future. “As COVID lingers, it will be a significant factor in our educational process,” he said.

Plenty of students have left their traditional public schools since the start of the pandemic for the Greater Commonwealth Virtual School, which is based in Greenfield but has students who live across the commonwealth, said Michelle Morrisey, director of enrollment and recruitment.

Before the pandemic, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education allowed two virtual schools to operate across the state. Similar to a charter school, the schools are operated by a board of trustees and are financed by receiving a per-pupil allotment from the state for each student who attends.

Enrollment has nearly doubled since COVID, further nibbling away at traditional public school numbers, and the school has been allowed to increase its cap several times during the past two years. It now can take up to 1,200 students, up from 750 at the start of the 2019-20 school year, she said.

“One of the things that made it popular is COVID opened a new world to students and some students found out they did better in a virtual setting and wanted to continue,” Morrissey said.

Previously, the school mainly was attended by students who had a medical or mental health condition, had been badly bullied, were in competitive training for sports or the arts, parenting or pregnant teens and some very gifted students, she said.

Some students also attend for a short period of time due to illness or because of seasonal competitions, Morrissey said.

Before COVID hit, the school was fully enrolled. A boost in marketing and a new information center that made it easier for parents to ask questions resulted in a large waiting list, Morrissey said.

But in September 2020, six months into the pandemic, the school was inundated with applications. State officials agreed to increase the cap to 1,050 students but even then, the waiting list ballooned to more than 800, she said.

“It was crazy. We always have had a good waiting list, but this is much larger,” she said.

Private schools have had a smaller impact on public school declines.

“While there has been a decline in public school enrollment in certain areas of Western Massachusetts, our overall school enrollment continues to increase. We thought a number of families might leave us after the pandemic restrictions were lifted, but they decided to stay. It is the same with inflation. The families who have come to us are happy with the community and care they are receiving in our Catholic schools,” Springfield Diocesan Superintendent Daniel R. Baillargeon said in writing.

Some schools have seen a small steady increase such as Pope Francis Preparatory High School in Springfield, which had 393 enrolled in June 2022 as compared to 366 in 2021 and 335 in the 2018-19 school year. The kindergarten to grade 8 schools show more sporadic numbers with a few dropping, but more seeing modest increases over the past two years after previously being in a decline.

Statewide enrollment for in-state private and parochial schools, which is also taken on Jan. 1, showed a small increase for 2022 but overall has declined. During the last school year, there were 67,579 students enrolled in private schools, up from 66,253 for Jan. 1, 2021 when so many parochial schools were teaching in-person. During the 2019-20 school year, statewide enrollment in parochial schools, which closed like public schools in March 2020, was 68,050. In school year 2017-18 and 2016-17 it was about the same at about 75,500 students.

In Chicopee the number of students attending parochial high schools is insignificant with just seven out of more than 2,140 high school students, Francis said.

“We did lose some students to parochial but we did get some back,” he said. As of October 2021, there were 284 city students attending Catholic schools.

Perrone said he understands families who are trying to balance fear of exposure, COVID protection protocols and excessive screen time have been reluctant to send the youngest children to school, but is hopeful he will see enrollment bounce back in West Springfield, especially in the youngest grades.

“That’s where children begin to love to learn and love school,” Perrone said. “Our goal now is to focus our engagement on that love for school, learning and the skills that start in kindergarten.”

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