Amid virus outbreak, New Mexico addresses school enrollment

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — As New Mexico experiences a rise in deaths and infections related to the coronavirus, education and child welfare officials are working to locate 12,000 students who have stopped attending public school and haven't notified the state about their next move.

A total of 21,000 students have disenrolled since the spring, including those who have notified schools of a transfer to homeschooling, a private school, or to another school out of state. New Mexico's student enrollment has declined for years because of an aging, flat population, but the apparent exodus recorded this fall is much higher than before.

The 12,000 students who are unaccounted for reflect a 4.2% decline in enrollment for the 40-day “money count” that determines public school funding, according to the Public Education Department, which released preliminary data on Monday weeks ahead of schedule.

“Typically, attendance numbers are released only after weeks of careful vetting, but because of growing concerns about high absence rates, the department opted to release them now as preliminary, unconfirmed figures,” the department said in a statement Thursday.

The numbers are usually released in December, but media and state legislators have been pushing for an earlier release to assess the potential impact of the pandemic on future education funding. With the vast majority of schools in New Mexico stuck in online-only learning, many parents have given up on public school.

State lawmakers are considering legislation to keep funding stable despite drops in enrollment during the pandemic.

On Tuesday, the state reported a record 2,112 known new cases of the virus, bringing the total case count to over 67,000. Officials also reported a record-high 28 deaths in a single day. The death toll now stands at 1,264.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham took to Twitter Tuesday to tell residents to “shelter in place.”

The state implemented additional lockdown measures on Monday.

“The virus is everywhere,” Lujan Grisham wrote Tuesday. “Don’t go out. Don’t go shopping. Don’t take extra errands. Don’t go see friends. Don’t infect your loved ones. Don’t end up in a hospital.”

The Public Education Department is working with other state agencies like the Children, Youth and Families Department as well as school districts to try and identify the students and re-enroll them if possible.

Parents who fail to enroll their children in some form of school may run afoul of state laws, but state officials are trying to take a soft approach. Child welfare and law enforcement agencies have largely avoided fining parents under truancy laws, focusing on welfare checks that result in referrals to public services.

“This is a time for compassion. We know there are many reasons children are not attending school, and we want to work with them and their families to solve problems and get them back in class — not to punish them. But ultimately, we must meet our promise to educate every New Mexico child for college or career,” Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said.

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.


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