Disruptions caused by COVID-19 mean enrollment at some county schools is lower this year than it was in 2019. The trend has administrators worried about students’ education and school funding.
At the same time, other districts continue to see growth as more families move to the area.
For the districts that saw between a 3.5 percent and 8 percent decline in enrollment, administrators said they hope declining COVID numbers will bring students back to the classroom.
Most county districts saw at least a slight dip in enrollment between the 2019-2020 school year and 2020-2021 school year, as many families chose to homeschool or take advantage of virtual options. Data for this story was collected from October of all three school years.
Two districts — Santa Fe and Dickinson— actually grew between 2019 and now, a continuation of several years of growth. Two districts — Friendswood and Hitchcock independent school districts — had slight dips in the 2020-2021 school year but were back at or close to pre-COVID levels this year, according to district data.
Three districts saw dips in enrollment between the 2019-2020 school year and the 2021-2022 school year: Clear Creek, Galveston and Texas City, according to district data. It’s a trend administrators attribute to COVID-related disruptions.
“It is the first time in our history that we’ve seen a drop,” said Elaina Polsen, spokeswoman for Clear Creek Independent School District.
The district has almost 1,600 fewer students enrolled this year, 40,911, than the 2019-2020 academic year, 42,502, according to district data.
KEEPING YOUNGER STUDENTS HOME
The decline for Clear Creek is primarily in pre-K and kindergarten, Polsen said.
“Families chose to keep their children home because of COVID-19,” she said.
Administrators in Galveston also point to the pandemic to explain the 383-student dip from 7,041 students in the 2019-2020 school year to 6,658 this year, according to district data.
That’s not a significant dip, said Dyann Polzin, chief human capital management and student services officer.
Galveston parents also were keeping their pre-K students home, but that’s changing now that cases are dropping again, Polzin said.
“They are almost at a number where we might not be able to accept more pre-K students because we’re reaching capacity,” Polzin said.
Local districts aren’t alone with seeing smaller class sizes in the youngest age groups. Parents across Texas kept younger students home this year, said Cody Summerville, executive director of the Texas Association for the Education of Young Children.
“We know a lot of families are concerned about COVID, and families are choosing to keep their children at home, so they can ensure their safety,” Summerville said. “With schools not being able to mandate masks or require vaccinations of teachers, the only way that families can guarantee the safety of their children is to keep them at home.”
As those students enter back into school, teachers may face challenges catching them up, he said.
“I think it’s going to be really tricky as they enter back into school,” Summerville said. “Some may be ready and others may not be ready.”
Galveston also saw declines at the other end of public schools, among the older high school students, she said. Some older students chose to take online school through other programs, she said.
“There were lots of options that popped up for online learning,” Polzin said. “Homeschool’s another thing.”
Some Texas City students may have also left to access virtual instruction elsewhere, said Terri Burchfield, deputy superintendent for support services for the Texas City school district.
In some cases, schools just don’t know where every student went.
Nationwide, enrollment declined 3 percent in the 2020-2021 school year from the 2019-2020 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Younger grades outpaced declines in other levels, with a 22 percent dip in pre-K enrollment and a 9 percent drop in registered kindergartners, according to the data.
“We have a significant amount of kids that we’re unable to find,” said Burchfield.
The district sends letters, knocks on doors and makes a concerted effort to find out where the students went, Burchfield said.
“If they transfer to another district, we’ll get that information through the system,” Burchfield said. “These are the kids that we can’t find or they haven’t requested records. These are the kids that are missing. They’re missing because they’re not enrolled anywhere.”
Schools can’t find some students every year, and that’s true in every district, she said. But the rate of unaccounted for students is higher this year, and it’s primarily at the high school level, she said.
While Galveston has guesses where some students are, some just haven’t reenrolled, Polzin said.
“We actually don’t know,” Polzin said. “We are always looking for those students.”
The district has truancy offices that look for these students and partner with community groups, she said.
For other districts, the pandemic’s impacts didn’t squelch strong growth trends.
Dickinson Independent School District grew from 11,645 students in the 2019-2020 school year to 11,890 students this year, despite a slight dip in last year’s enrollment, according to district data.
The area is teeming with new housing developments, said Robert Cobb, assistant superintendent for administration.
“We’ve got growth pretty much going all the way across the district,” Cobb said. “It’s due to the home construction and the new neighborhoods that are building.”
The district has seen sustained growth by about 300 students a year for almost 10 years, Cobb said.
“I think people are moving here from all over because we have a very diverse student population,” Cobb said.
Santa Fe Independent School District, another hotbed of growth, increased enrollment by 36.5 percent since 2019, from about 3,200 students to 4,361 this year. In the past five years, areas in and around Santa Fe have blossomed with new housing developments and construction, which has encouraged more families to move to the area.
Although administrators are concerned about the students themselves, decreased enrollment does have monetary consequences, as well.
In Texas, districts receive state funding that’s calculated through a formula using enrollment and daily attendance.
“When you have fewer kids, you have to make sure they’re coming to school every day so you’re getting the same amount of money,” Burchfield said. “It has huge implications. Our superintendent is very concerned.”
Clear Creek’s budget is balanced this year, but if trends don’t reverse, the district might have to make adjustments next year, Polsen said.
That’s tough when 80 percent of the budget is tied up in staffing, she said.
There’s one good sign in that regard. Every district has reported students are coming back throughout the school year. In the Clear Creek district, officials expect that trend to continue.
“We want our children back into our schools,” Polsen said.