Utah's public schools this year saw a decrease in enrollment for the first time in two decades. Local school districts were hit harder, on average, than the rest of the state.
The Utah State Board of Education published enrollment data last week that showed a 0.23% decline in K-12 students statewide in a school year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic. The last time the number of students in the state went down from the previous year was 2000, when there was a 0.15% drop in the student population.
“Enrollment counts are especially important this year as schools contend with effects from the pandemic,” said State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson in a statement.
She said USBE will continue collecting data throughout this academic year to analyze the impact the coronavirus has had on students and schools.
Proportionately, local school districts had enrollment reductions as much as 32 times higher than the state total. The Weber School District had 1.2% fewer students register for classes this year, while Davis School District saw a 3.07% drop. Ogden School District, meanwhile, was hit the worst with a 7.36% decline in enrollment.
"There is no question that this year is an anomaly statewide seeing enrollment counts go down rather than up for the state as a whole," said Ogden School District spokesperson Jer Bates.
There are multiple potential explanations for the decrease and why local district numbers indicated a much higher rate of student loss than the state.
One is that charter schools are technically public schools, so charter school numbers are included in the state total. Some parents potentially opted to move their students from a traditional school to a charter school, which they may have viewed as safer due to smaller class sizes or better options for remote learning.
In the case of the Davis School District — which started the school year on a hybrid schedule, meaning students attended in-person classes just two days a week — other parents may have transferred their children to a charter school with in-person classes five days a week.
"In the middle of a pandemic, there’s a lot of different feelings about the safety of schools and the school environment," said Weber School District spokesperson Lane Findlay. "We anticipated we would have parents who would elect to look at other options."
Parents who were concerned about either physical distancing or the amount of in-school learning drove state numbers down too, USBE data shows.
"An enrollment count in September found that public school exit codes for students showed a decided upturn in both home schooling options for younger children and a larger than normal migration to private school options," read a statement from USBE.
Home schooling seems to have been an especially popular option for parents with kindergarten-aged children. In the state of Utah, kindergarten attendance is optional.
Statewide, there was a 3.93% decline in students entering kindergarten. Meanwhile, Weber School District saw a 4.4% drop, while Davis and Ogden school districts' decreases were in the double digits with 12.57% and 17.2%, respectively.
Many of the students whose parents opted not to sign them up for kindergarten will likely end up in public schools next year for first grade. What USBE is most concerned about, however, is that there was a steep decline in the numbers of students classified as economically disadvantaged in schools.
The state school board reported there were 8.28% — more than 17,000 — fewer students from a low-income background. Davis School District came in below the state's numbers with a 5.66% loss. Ogden School District had a 10.12% decrease in students in the economically disadvantaged category and Weber's went down by 12.21%.
The measure the state uses for tracking the amount of economically disadvantaged children in its schools is the number who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, which may explain the cut in students from that background.
President Donald Trump's administration announced on Oct. 9 that free school lunches, which were previously going to be available to all students up until December, would extend through the end of the 2020-21 academic year. Under the provision, parents who couldn't afford school lunch were required to fill out an eligibility form for their children to be allowed to eat for free.
The numbers may also indicate that low-income students are more frequently in situations that compel them to drop out of school. In 2019, students from an economically disadvantaged background had a graduation rate more than 10% below the state total.
"USBE is working with districts and charters to get clarity on the issue," said a statement from the board.
Districts are using a variety of methods in an effort to attract students back, the most prominent of which is working to diversify students' learning options. All three districts have poured a significant amount of money, most of which comes from the federal CARES Act, into improving their online instructional infrastructure.
Although it has so far had a bumpy start, with some students not starting classes until a week after launch, the Weber School District at the start of second quarter opened a K-12 online alternative school.
"That was part of the motivation and drive in trying to offer as many options to families as possible," said Findlay. "It was an abrupt change when we shut down, then to have to gear up to reopen under a lot of difficult circumstances, it’s certainly been challenging. But the focus has been to offer as many options as possible."