Enrollment drops worry public schools as pandemic persists

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Emily Chao, standing, watches as her sister Anabelle, works on a writing exercise after they finished remote learning for the day, as their mom Erica sits, back left, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, at their home in North Miami Beach, Fla. Rather than wait to see how the Miami-Dade school system would handle instruction this fall, Erica Chao enrolled her two daughters in a private school that seemed better positioned to provide remote learning than their public elementary school was when the coronavirus first reached Florida. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Rather than wait to see how her children's Florida public school would teach students this fall, Erica Chao enrolled her two daughters in a private school that seemed better positioned to provide instruction online during the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic.

The virtual lessons that Emily, 8, and Annabelle, 6, received in the spring while enrolled at a Miami-Dade County elementary school became a “free for all,” Chao said. The private school classes, by contrast, hold the girls' attention, and their mother no longer worries they will fall behind if she doesn't attend school with them at home.

“For the first time since March, I was able to walk away," Chao said.

Parents across the country have faced similar choices about whether to keep their children in public schools as the pandemic extends into a new academic year. Some opted for private or charter schools. Others are dedicating themselves to homeschooling, hiring tutors to oversee multi-family “learning pods” or struggling to balance their children's educations with work when school times and technology keep changing.

Such personal decisions could exacerbate the financial problems of public school systems that receive a set amount of state funding for every student they enroll, which are the vast majority. With preliminary figures showing unexpected enrollment declines in many places, school officials used letters, phone calls and volunteers going door-to-door to persuade parents to register their youngsters before this month's fall student census.

The superintendent of Georgia's fifth-largest district spelled out the financial implications on YouTube after only 2,912 pupils were enrolled in virtual kindergarten classes by mid-September. Clayton County's public schools usually greet 3,500 to 3,600 new kindergarteners.

“Kindergarten parents, wherever you are, remember this....When you enroll your child in kindergarten this year, that means we get funding next year,” Superintendent Morcease Beasley said, explaining that would mean fewer services for students starting first grade in fall 2021.

Similar appeals came from other public education systems where fewer students showed up either online or in person last month, especially in the lower grades. The Los Angeles Unified School District, the country’s second-largest school system, saw kindergarten enrollment go from 42,912 to 36,914 this fall, a decrease of 14%. In Nashville, Tennessee, public kindergarten enrollment is down about 1,800 students, or 37%.