Thousands of Washington’s kindergartners haven’t shown up or logged in to their public schools this year—and state officials don’t yet know where they’re going, if they’re getting any sort of instruction at all, or if they’ll return to the public school system as first graders.
Overall, Washington state’s K-12 public school enrollment dipped by 31,000, or 2.82%, since the last academic year, according to new state data released Wednesday.
The biggest drop, 14%, was in kindergarten, accounting for a third of the decrease. Overall enrollment in elementary grades saw bigger drops. The state’s total enrollment was 1.06 million, down from 1.09 million last September
It’s an early hint at one way small numbers of parents, particularly those with younger students, might be coping with online school: by finding another way to educate their children. The numbers don’t definitively say whether the shifts account for anything more than regular population change, from children aging into the school system or graduating out of it.
But compared to previous years, the decline stands out. This school year marks the first decrease since at least September 2014 in overall statewide enrollment numbers, according to additional data provided by the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Since then, the rate of growth has fluctuated, ranging from increases of .21% between 2017 and 2018 to 1.16% between 2015 and 2016.
State officials are interpreting the change as the result of scores of parents choosing not to enroll their children or to delay kindergarten.
“If these trends continue, many of our districts will need to make adjustments in the short term even as they plan for booming kindergarten and first grade classes next year,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, in a statement. “We will continue working with the Legislature and our congressional delegation on solutions to these unique challenges.” He added that the changes were “not a surprise.”
The enrollment numbers only show overall student head counts in each district by grade. They don’t say where parents are sending their students— conducting home school, enrolling them in private schools or simply taking a year off—and they also don’t break out changes by disability, race or income level. That information, state officials say, will come later on.
Unlike the spring, when COVID-19 unexpectedly shuttered Washington’s schools, this academic year comes with expectations: A screening test to measure academics after so much time away. Real grades. Attendance requirements.
But even in the best-case scenario, online learning requires at least some parental guidance, which is harder to provide when parents or guardians are essential workers. Some parents say they’re choosing private school or home schooling as a way to have more agency over how their kids are learning. But not everyone can afford those options.
In the Puget Sound region, there were no obvious enrollment patterns among districts with similar demographics or income levels. The one thing they have in common: Each district showed some degree of decrease.
Seattle’s enrollment dipped by 1.15% as it recorded 600 fewer students than during the same time last September.
Tukwila saw the biggest percent decrease, at 8.73%, but given its size, that amounted to 253 students.
Highline saw the smallest percent decrease at .08%, going from 17,740 to 17,726 students.
The numbers come from districts’ enrollment counts in September. While enrollment levels carry financial implications for school districts, these numbers are one of 10 counts taken from September through June that the state uses to calculate the amount of money it sends school districts to cover staff, technology, supplies and other expenses throughout the school year. Each January, the state adjusts funding allocations based on average actual enrollment reported for that school year, starting with the September measurement.
In Washington, state law requires all children age 8 and older to attend school—public, private or home school—with few exceptions for those who are mentally or physically unable to attend.
What will happen if these students enter the system a year later? Individual districts set policies that determine whether students who skipped kindergarten enter as kindergartners or first graders next year.
Two of Sam Fetchero’s three children were supposed to start kindergarten and second grade this year in Bellevue Public Schools. But over the summer, as the district first announced it hoped to start the school year in person but then opted to begin online, Fetchero became fed up.
“I felt like I’d been duped,” said Fetchero, who works in marketing and technology at a startup. This summer, as Bellevue set its fall plans, the state had changed its coronavirus back-to-school forecasts and guidance. A modeling report from the Institute for Disease Modeling cautioned against reopening school buildings; a second report from the same institute later suggested schools start with elementary-age students when they do reopen.
“It wasn’t the right option for our family to have our kindergartner and 5-year-old sitting in front of a screen,” Fetchero said.
After considering moving to Alaska or Denver, he wound up enrolling his two school-age children in Bellevue Christian School. So far, he’s happy. The kids are in school five days a week, and the school emailed him this week to say there have been no cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, so far. The hard part, he said, is not being able to drop his kids off at their classrooms, because parents aren’t allowed inside the school for safety reasons. That, and the tuition of about $13,000 per year.
In Bellevue, enrollment decreased by 3.11% year over year. Kindergarten enrollment changed from 1,285 last September to 1,205 this September. “We believe the decline is due in large part to COVID-19 and our start of the year in remote learning,” Bellevue School District director of communications Michael May said in an email. “Given the growth we are still anticipating in our community, we expect enrollment to return over the next few years.”
Parents like Gemma Remillard, who moved over the summer, contended with the possibility of starting their kids out online—when they didn’t know any of their peers. Remillard moved from Los Angeles to Bothell because she wanted to be closer to her family, among other reasons.
She bought a house in the Northshore School District, and enrolled her daughters in first and third grade there, thinking schools would reopen in person for fall. But “it didn’t make sense to put them in Zoom school,” she said. “It would be a screen of 20 faces they didn’t know.”
So the stay-at-home mother bought a Pearson math curriculum and tested out home schooling in August, with the intent of reintroducing the girls to public schools when buildings reopened. After seeing success, she disenrolled them from Northshore. So far so good, she said, but it’s hard for her kids to not know their neighbors.
While the state report doesn’t quantify the number of parents who turned to home schooling, Jen Garrison Stuber, board advocacy chair for the Washington Homeschool Organization, said interest is through the roof. Her group regularly offers parents courses about home schooling.
Most years, about 200 parents enroll per class, or about 800 annually. This year, she said, the group’s June course attracted about 850 parents; the September course maxed out at 1,000, so they opened one up for October—which, as of Wednesday, had about 700 parents signed up.
“I went from getting two to five emails a day to 20-40 emails a day since March,” Garrison Stuber said. “It only let up a week ago.”
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