When Jazmin Mendoza Sosa, student support specialist for Communities In Schools, looked at Virginia Cross Elementary School enrollment data last fall, she noticed what many media organizations have reported since the beginning of the school year: a decline in enrollment.
As the lead student specialist at Virginia Cross, Mendoza Sosa serves 10% of the student population, based on the Day 10 enrollment data. She noticed the number of students she was serving went from 54 students to 45 — representing a loss of nearly 100 students from the year before.
Since that Day 10 enrollment report from September, the number of students enrolled at Virginia Cross remained relatively steady, but Chatham County Schools saw a total population 1.98% decrease of 173 students, according to Month 6 data spanning Feb. 3 to March 4. That’s a 4.8% decrease from the 2019-20 school year, or 428 students, based on the two year’s Month 6 data.
“In the grand scheme of things, that doesn’t sound dramatic when you think of all of our students,” CCS Public Relations Coordinator John McCann told the News + Record. “But any student that we can’t reach or that’s not here is a lot for us — we want everybody to be here who wants to be here.”
McCann said the decrease is likely due to COVID-19, and concerns people have about their students returning to school. Declines could be due to families opting for homeschool or schools offering more in-person learning. McCann said CCS school counselors and social workers reached out to families through home visits and phone calls with students they hadn’t heard from — an effort Mendoza Sosa emphasized as well.
“I believe as we are transitioning in-person learning, we will be able to better identify the ‘missing students’ or address the reason for decline of enrollment,” Mendoza Sosa told the News + Record. “As student support specialist, I always try to have monthly contact with the family so I can help families. At school, I know Virginia Cross is also trying to do engagement.”
While district enrollment reports show that some fluctuation was normal among individual grade levels, in the 2010-2020 time range analyzed, the total number of students in the district increased every year, apart from this school year. The decrease in CCS total student enrollment trended toward K-8 students.
Mendoza Sosa said she thinks factors in place prior to COVID led to some of the enrollment decline currently evident, particularly in Pre-K and kindergarten. For example, she said, lower birth rates likely impacted upcoming kindergarten classes. North Carolina, along with 30 other states, also does not require children to attend kindergarten, though all public school systems must offer it.
“I can’t say if this impacted VCE prior to COVID, but I know of other schools struggling to enroll Pre-K and Kindergarten students,” she said.
This trend is reflected statewide, according to preliminary data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction which shows a 15.21% decline in kindergarten membership during the COVID-19 pandemic. In an Oct. 23 report examining the state’s data, EducationNC reported that kindergarten saw the steepest decline among all grades when compared with data from 2019-20.
That data reflects the average daily membership, a measurement used by the state to give an idea of how many students are in schools, which is slightly different from the enrollment numbers listed in CCS reports. DPI defines ADM as “The total number of school days within a given term, usually a school month or school year, that a student’s name is on the current roll of a class, regardless of his/her being present or absent, is the number of days in membership for that student. The sum of the number of days in membership for all students divided by the number of school days in the term yields ADM.”
ADM is a more accurate count of the number of students in school than enrollment, DPI says. In North Carolina, school districts receive funding based on their projected ADMs, meaning that they could face budget cuts for lower numbers. This year, in September, the General Assembly passed a bill ensuring districts would not face such cuts for ADM declines.
Still, that doesn’t mean long-term effects of such declines aren’t of any concern, Menzosa Sosa said.
“I see potential long-term consequences as losing resources, teachers and find(ing) it difficult to support children,” she said.
Last fall, The Washington Post reported that student enrollment had “dropped markedly” this school year across the Washington region, and attributed the decline to families who have switched to homeschooling or private schools with in-person learning, or those who’ve moved to farther-away school districts. The News + Record does not currently have data on the reasoning for any withdrawal in CCS; this data doesn’t necessarily exist for kindergarteners new to the district, though it could for kindergarten students who enrolled this year and then withdrew.
“Hopefully, as more more folks get vaccinated, then come next year we’ll have those numbers increased,” McCann said of CCS enrollment data.
In Chatham, most charter schools didn’t begin offering in-person learning for students much earlier than Chatham County Schools did — and enrollment numbers from those schools suggest students leaving CCS did not move solely to those schools.
Beth McCullough, Executive Director of Secondary Programs & Communications at Chatham Charter school, said the school’s current enrollment is 561 students.
“We stay around 565 every year so our numbers are very in line with the norm,” she said, adding that they’ve noticed a difference in the number of applications for the 2021-22 school year. “There were about half as many as other years which we attribute to the pandemic.”
Even so, the school still had a wait list at the time of its lottery.
Woods Charter School Principal Cotton Bryan said the school has 505 students, with enrollment typically at 512 students, “plus or minus a few.”
Willow Oak Montessori, the third charter school currently open to students in the county, did not respond to an email asking about its current enrollment numbers.
Mendoza Sosa said the Siler City community was impacted because of the loss of income during the pandemic and need to search for jobs outside the county — an impact she suspects might have changed which schools students attend.
“Chatham County has a housing situation that impacts being able to find affordable housing,” she said. “The families we serve in Siler City are families who chose to stay in the county and work outside of the county, but as a result of COVID, some families might have to move their families to other cities or states to find a network of support that they might have lost as result of the pandemic.”
As for ‘missing students,’ a term used in different ways to describe various groups of students negatively impacted by the pandemic and remote learning, Mendoza Sosa said she conceptualizes this group as students the school hasn’t been able to make any contact with and for whom there is no proof of their learning. These students aren’t necessarily the same ones represented in enrollment decline data, she said.
At Virginia Cross, the school worked hard to identify and support such students, she said, particularly at the beginning of the school year when she spent a lot of time calling and visiting families to check on them. Due to income loss caused by the pandemic, many families could no longer afford Wi-Fi. For other students who’d never had consistent internet access, the dependency on remote learning during the pandemic made connecting with teachers more challenging.
“I feel ‘missing students’ at the beginning were students struggling to transition to a remote-learning environment,” Mendoza Sosa said. “Also, I feel the ‘missing kids’ were students who struggled learning remotely and that some of the COVID might have resulted in mental health issues for our kids. I struggled so much working from home and I could not really concentrate on doing work sometimes — I am an adult.”
In Chatham, Pre-K through 5th grade students had the result to return to in-person learning four times a week under Plan A on April 12, with middle and high schoolers able to return April 19. It remains to be seen if enrollment numbers will increase following this increased in-person learning time, as predicted by many education experts.
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.
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