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‘This is a crisis’: Baltimore-area school districts expect enrollment to decline this fall — and funding to follow

Thousands of students are missing from Baltimore-area classes this September, some because they don’t have internet access and others who may have dropped out of the public schools during the pandemic.

The exact enrollment numbers won’t be known for several weeks, but on Wednesday every school system in the state will tally its students as part of an annual count required by state law. The decline is expected to be significant in some school systems — and unless state officials step in, the consequences for public school funding for next year could be devastating.

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Baltimore City schools CEO Sonja Santelises said about 79% of her district’s students are taking classes online, a number she said has risen from 65% over the month of September as more students were able to get devices and internet access. The school system is handing out laptops as fast as it can, but some are still on back order.

“This is a crisis for our public schools and this demands gubernatorial action. Governor Hogan has to step in and ensure schools are held harmless because it is not their fault,” said Joe Francaviglia, executive director of Strong Schools Maryland, a network of grassroots education advocates through the state.

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He estimates that the Baltimore system alone could lose more than $100 million if the official enrollment declines as much as predicted. “When an area doesn’t have internet access, then the school system is penalized for it — it is infuriating,” he said.

In Anne Arundel County, enrollment is down by about 1,000 students or slightly more than 1%. Of those students who are enrolled this year, about 93% are signing on for online instruction.

In Carroll County about 700 students, or 3% of the students enrolled last year, are not taking part in online classes.

Howard County and Baltimore County schools did not provide enrollment estimates for this year compared with last year. Howard said 96% of students enrolled this year are attending classes. Baltimore County school officials said about 93% of their students are showing up, slightly fewer than would attend school on an average day in a normal year. Harford County did not provide any data.

School systems are attempting to track down missing students, but officials say they are finding it difficult because the economic downturn has forced families to move or change phone numbers. And parents who aren’t home because they are working can’t make sure their children are online at the right time to access live, online instruction.

Principals pay close attention to the number of students who are on their rolls. In a normal year, schools offer special incentives to get every student to attend school on Sept. 30 so they can be counted. Each student translates to thousands of dollars for their school. State and federal funding is handed out based on a formula that gives a certain amount for each student in the district.

“What is clear is that this problem must be addressed quickly," said Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson. "The impact of doing nothing will be a practical cut of upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars to the state’s public schools.”

Either the governor or the Maryland State Department of Education has the power to hold school systems harmless, he said.

While the legislature can act when it meets again starting in January, Ferguson said by that time Republican Gov. Larry Hogan will have nearly completed his budget, making it difficult for the legislature to take action. Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Democrat from Baltimore, said she wanted to pause using the enrollment count to determine funding for this year, unless a school district can demonstrate enrollment growth.

A spokesman for the governor did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

The Maryland State Department of Education declined requests for an interview. The department issued a statement saying the Sept. 30 date could not be changed because it is tied to federal financial reporting and the state budget cycle.

“In order to address concerns about potentially lower enrollment counts as a result of remote learning, local school systems should ensure their attendance policies support their continuity of learning plan,” the statement said.

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National experts predict different scenarios for enrollment. Bree Dusseault, a researcher at the Center for Reinventing Public Education in Seattle, said districts with more affluent families are seeing students pulled out so that they can go to nonpublic schools that are offering more in-person instruction.

“Some of these families may have found something different and won’t be coming back. Enrollment losses are most pronounced among the youngest students — those in preschool or kindergarten,” she said, adding that it would be dangerous for schools to assume those students will be back. Other districts could suffer enrollment among low-income students, she said.

But Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said he suspects “that public school enrollment will snap back to its pre-pandemic levels once there’s a vaccine and all schools are physically open.”

He said states across the country are seeing big enrollment drops.

Even the count will be difficult this year. Harford County, which has had fewer laptops to offer students than other districts, said it will be counting students who may not be online but are checking in regularly with a teacher.

Chris Battaglia, principal of Benjamin Franklin High School in the city, spent Tuesday driving around picking up students from their houses and taking them to school health clinics to get shots. There were 13 students who were showing up for class online, but hadn’t received their childhood immunizations and, without them, could not have been included in the Sept. 30 count.

The students wouldn’t have been able to come to the school building without the vaccinations, he said, but he has allowed unvaccinated students to participate online because they are learning at home and are not risking anyone else’s health.

If Battaglia can’t get those students counted, he said he could lose an English teacher.

“It is crazy that the funding is cut if a student doesn’t have a shot,” Battaglia said. And in a pandemic, he said, the state law makes little sense to him. Battaglia said because his high school is not a neighborhood school, so students have to travel long distances to pick up a laptop or a hot spot to connect to the internet. He said he is missing at least 50 of his 641 students from online classes.

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