By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
Enrollment at Lawrence County Schools is up this academic year, bucking a nearly 20-year pattern of decline despite COVID-19.
The rural north Alabama system has a net gain of about 50 students this year spread across most grades, with the exception of kindergarten. The system has about 50 fewer 5-year-olds than it did last year.
“I can name you probably a dozen parents that talked to me about holding their children out a year,” Superintendent Jon Bret Smith told Alabama Daily News. Some of those would-be students who had summer birthdays and the parents were on the fence about starting kindergarten this year or waiting until next year.
“COVID-19 pushed them over the edge,” Smith said.
Kindergarten isn’t mandatory in Alabama and concerns about the safety of in-person learning and the challenges of online instruction for young children appear to be driving down enrollment statewide.
Ryan Hollingsworth, the executive director of School Superintendents of Alabama, said he hasn’t seen final state Average Daily Membership numbers – those should be available next month – but early numbers were concerning.
“In the first part of the statewide reporting period, there was a decrease in kindergarten enrollment of around 2,500 students compared to last year,” Hollingsworth said. “If this is true in the final ADM report, we would see a loss of funding for 175 teachers for the fall of 2021 based upon the current divisor for kindergarten.”
Alabama bases state funding for schools on the previous year’s enrollment, but some school leaders are hoping an exception will be made.
“We don’t want any system to be punished based on an issue that was not of their making,” said Vic Wilson, executive director of Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools, a group that supports principals.
State Superintendent Eric Mackey said there have been decreases across the board in K-6, while higher grades appear to have held steady.
“We believe that parents are just more open to their high schoolers doing online learning than they are younger children,” Mackey said recently. “And so we don’t know where all those (younger) children have gone, we know that some of them have gone to private schools, some of them are doing home school. With kindergarten, we believe that some of them are simply not going to school, they know they’re just helping their kids back for another year and they’ll bring them back next year.”
Mackey said he talked to a mid-sized district last week that stands to lose four teachers because of a decline in enrollment.
“Well, what we don’t want is for them to get to May, to lay off those teachers and then come August, those students show back up because the pandemic has ended, and now they need those four teachers back, but they don’t have the money for them,” he said. “And more importantly, for me, is the chaos that creates with teachers being laid off, so we are absolutely committed to doing some kind of progressive formula that accounts for that.”
Mackey said when numbers are finalized, ALSDE will take several funding proposals to the Executive Budget Office and lawmakers. Approval of any sort of funding change would have to be made by state lawmakers in the 2021 session.
A legislative budget leader this week told ADN that the COVID-impacted enrollment is just one piece of a large pandemic funding puzzle that will need to be pieced together next year.
Schools enrollment can vary from year to year, but because this decline is larger than recent previous years, Mackey said he’s sure it’s COVID-19 related.
At Decatur City Schools, enrollment is down about 65 students from the previous year, 40 of them in kindergarten, Superintendent Michael Douglas said.
“Parents chose to hold their kids back from kindergarten due to concern over COVID,” Douglas said. “… It makes sense, kindergarten is not a requirement.”
Douglas said his situation isn’t as bad as some systems, but he hopes state budget makers will take the pandemic into consideration when allocating funds next year.
“Because kindergarten is down across the state, we were hoping they would at least freeze ADM or do an adjustment to ADM because if they base funding on this year’s numbers and then (the students) all come back next year, which most districts think that they will, we’re gonna be underfunded. We’re not gonna have enough teachers to accommodate the families coming back.”
In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee has said schools won’t be penalized for COVID-19-caused enrollment changes.
“For every district that lost numbers, go back to last year’s numbers,” Douglas said. “Give us not more than we deserve, but not less. If some systems did grow, fund them on those additional students but don’t punish others.”
Many school systems started the year virtually and have recently returned to in-person classrooms. It’s up to each system how they deliver instruction and students are counted the same in the ADM whether they’re virtual learners or sitting in a traditional classroom.
In Lawrence County, Smith said some of the system’s growth can be attributed to a virtual program that has attracted students who were previously homeschooled or in private school.
Florence City Schools still has some kindergarten students attending virtually, but most are now in the classroom, Superintendent Jimmy Shaw Jr. said.
Overall, the system’s enrollment is up about a dozen students, but down about 20 kindergarten students from an abnormally high 375 last year.
“We picked up 11 or 12 kids and we’d like to get credit for them,” Shaw said. “You can lose a teacher unit on 14 kids, you can pick up a teacher unit on 14 kids at the elementary level. That’s a serious deal for us.”
Shaw said that his city system’s ability to offer devices to all students for virtual learning and internet availability in the area helped “weather the storm” during the pandemic.
In 2019-2020, there were 56,056 kindergarteners in public schools, according to ALSDE data. Five years prior, kindergarten enrollment was 57,940.
If final ADM numbers are down as early numbers were, Hollingsworth said SSA will support some type of hold harmless solution to prevent overcrowded kindergarten classrooms across the state.
Potential classroom challenges next year
Hollingsworth said schools could face a challenge next year if those missing students return to kindergarten next year.
“Not only would we be short those 175 teachers, but we would also need an additional 175 to handle the extra students that were held out this year that we expect to enroll in the fall of ’21,” he said.
As for next year, Douglas said it will largely be up to parents whether their children attend kindergarten or go directly to first grade.
“Of course we would give them a kindergarten readiness assessment test, but kindergarten is not required,” Douglas said. “If they wanted to go to first grade, they could go to first grade.”
Mackey said schools will have to wait until enrollment next year to know if this year’s missing kindergarten students will be in kindergarten or first grade and where more those teachers will be needed.
And because essential reading skills are taught in kindergarten, kids who skip it will be “automatically behind” if they jump to first grade.
“That has dramatic instructional implications for us,” Mackey said.
On the flip side, if a large number of six year olds start kindergarten next year, “that means we’re going to have a lot of overage children in that particular cohort, all the may through school,” Mackey said.
If lawmakers don’t make any changes, Douglas said he’ll have to shift local money around to fund the needed teachers. He said he can do that because DCS is a large system well supported by local tax dollars. But not all systems can do that, he said.
“These systems where they do not have a lot of local support in high poverty areas and county school systems, 65 kids, and four or five teacher units could really make or break you, so that’s where my advocacy is on this.”
Mark Dixon, president of A+ Education Partnership said that when the fuller drop off picture is known, more attention should be paid to the effect on student learning, not just budgets.
“While budgets are important, they can be fixed by the Legislature in the short-term,” Dixon said. “The larger equity concern is for the long-term impact on our most vulnerable students, particularly those that don’t yet have access to high-quality pre-K.”
Part of a ‘bigger puzzle’
Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, is the House education budget committee chairman. He said the ADM trends are a concern, along with the progression of children’s education in the pandemic.
“But there continues to be a lot of unknowns and the situation remains very fluid, and it varies by system,” Poole said. “At some systems who are back in class full-time they are seeing certain ADM trends and others who are still completely virtual are seeing different ADM trends, so that puzzle really hasn’t revealed itself yet.”
Poole said there will be a significant amount of discussion in the 2021 legislative session, which begins in February, about how COVID-19 has made this school year unlike any other and impacted school funding, including federal CARES Act money that went directly to schools.
“We have a lot, hundreds of millions of dollars of federal money, moving around within our school systems for various federal priorities,” Poole said. “What does that mean and how does that interact as it relates to state resources? How do all of these things fit together in the big picture and what does the Legislature need to prioritize in terms of funding in order to ensure that we’re doing everything possible to progress public education in the state of Alabama. And they’re going to be, I think, many, many, many questions as everybody tries to understand and recognize all of those moving parts.”
Poole said he expects some accounting of how federal and state dollars have been used in the pandemic as lawmakers make further budgeting decisions. In some cases, allocated money hasn’t been spent. Some systems that are still virtual were provided by the state this year transportation funding to get children to schools.
“So, how do we grapple with those?” Poole said. “Now, that’s not to say that the Legislature has any intention of doing anything punitive to anybody, but we’re going to have to gain a full picture of how these taxpayer resources have been applied and utilized. Where are their remaining needs? Where are their maybe leftover dollars so that we can allocate taxpayer funds efficiently and for their highest and best use. And that’s going to involve analyzing this on every level and from multiple perspectives.”
Not just Alabama
National Public Radio last week reported that while national data isn’t yet available, it sampled 60 school systems and found the average kindergarten enrollment drop was 16%.
The Seattle Times earlier this month reported Washington state’s K-12 public school enrollment dipped by 31,000, or 2.82%, since the last academic year. The biggest drop, 14%, was in kindergarten, accounting for a third of the decrease.
The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction announced this month enrollment in school districts dropped 3% across the state for the 2020-21 school year, driven in part by parents opting out of sending children to kindergarten.