Thousands of students left Maryland’s public schools during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, but they are slowly coming back as school buildings reopen and a sense of normalcy returns.
Whether the public schools can ever bring back all those students — from the dropouts to those who went to private schools or started home schooling — is an open question, but some experts predict a dip in numbers in the early grades may continue with that group of students as they move through school.
“We expected this,” said Shamoyia Gardiner, executive director of Strong Schools Maryland, a grassroots network of public school advocates. “We recognize it is going to take a little bit of time until we see a full bounce back.”
Preliminary enrollment figures for this school year show an uptick in most Baltimore-area school districts, but enrollments are not back to pre-pandemic numbers.
The exception is Baltimore County, where students haven’t returned. The county has only 36 more students than it did last year and remains down more than 3% from before the pandemic.
Baltimore City school officials, meanwhile, say they will not release their enrollment data before January.
The largest declines in enrollment showed up in the early grades. Parents with young children abandoned schools in droves during the first year of virtual learning, saying their kids weren’t able to sit in front of a computer screen all day. While some students came back, kindergarten through fifth grade numbers are still down in most systems.
Howard County has 1,000 fewer kindergartners than it did before the pandemic, although it has more ninth graders. And Anne Arundel has lost nearly 3,000 elementary school students.
The same declines are seen in Baltimore County, where Erin Furth of Catonsville decided to pull her three elementary-age children out of the public schools to home-school them. Her fifth grader left first, after the “excessive screen time” gave the child headaches.
“This year, I withdrew my other two children because I wasn’t ready for them to be in person, but didn’t want to commit to a year in virtual learning,” she said in an email.
She planned to reenroll them when they are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, but news of the new omicron variant is giving her reason to hold off a bit longer.
The historically unprecedented decline in public school enrollment across the nation was the result of decisions by school district leaders to switch to online learning, said Thomas Dee, a Stanford University education professor who has studied the issue.
“We found the decision to go remote particularly drove away the kids in the early grades,” he said.
Kids who switched schools or whose parents decided to hold them back a year instead of putting them in kindergarten may see the effects for a long time to come.
Dee doesn’t expect to see many parents return their elementary students to public schools.
“Parents with young kids who found a safe harbor for them, given the considerable uncertainty” with new variants and vaccines, may decide not to uproot their children again and move them back into public schools, he said.
He predicts parents may begin to reenter students in the public schools at sixth or ninth grade, when they may have to change schools anyway.
Across the state, Maryland schools saw a drop of 27,000 students between the fall of 2019 and the 2020-2021 school year when schools remained closed and the largest districts taught students only online.
The state has yet to release the official Sept. 30 enrollment count for the 2021-2022 academic year, but if it shows the trend continuing, school systems could see declines in their budgets. Last year, the Maryland General Assembly based funding for this fiscal year on pre-pandemic enrollment so schools would not see a dip in funding as they struggled to reopen school buildings.
Gardiner said she “has a lot of faith that the General Assembly will address this” by continuing to fund schools at higher levels than their enrollment typically would determine.
Whether schools are equipped with adequate staff and support needed for students returning from the pandemic will have a significant impact on whether schools will attract students, she said.
Parents seem to have left public schools for a variety of reasons, from fear of COVID-19 to frustration with the way schools operated during the pandemic. Private and religious schools remained open in the Baltimore area with only occasional closures, while the public schools shut tight.
Some parents said they moved to private schools when faced with the prospect of quitting their jobs to stay home to help their kids.
However, there also was dissatisfaction among some parents who felt the schools weren’t responsive enough to the needs of their children.
Erin O’Brien, the mother of two Baltimore County public school children, said she pulled her youngest child out of Ridgely Middle School in northern Baltimore County after last school year and sent him to a Catholic school.
“He was failing all his classes because he couldn’t focus on the screen all day long,” said O’Brien, who felt that administrators implied the problem was her child and not the system.
While there’s not a school that is perfect, she said, her son is now happy to go to school every morning and is doing fine. She said she won’t transfer him back to public schools.
Also, home schooling is on the rise. In Carroll County, the number of such students nearly doubled from 1,200 to 2,300, said Carey Gaddis, a spokeswoman for the school system.
Carroll County is seeing different trends in its schools, perhaps because families are moving into the county, she said. It has more elementary students than before the pandemic, but its middle and high schools have not gained. Gaddis said people she talks to cite a slightly cheaper cost of living and good schools as reasons they are moving to the county from places like Baltimore and Howard counties.
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Baltimore County, which previously was projected to gain about 1,000 students every year, had a decline from 115,000 students before the pandemic to 111,000 this fall. If the pre-pandemic projections had held, the county would have had 5,000 more students this year than it does.
The county’s biggest declines were in the elementary grades. In the ninth grade, enrollment grew by more than 1,000 students and is above the pre-pandemic level. There may be hope for the future, however, as prekindergarten and kindergarten numbers increased over the past year.
The county tried to find students who had left the system, sending social workers and administrators to students’ homes in hopes of getting them back, according to Gboyinde Onijala, a spokeswoman for the school system. They found some students frustrated by an inability to log onto online learning, she said. In other cases, they found students had moved out of the area.
Onijala said the county may have more students than its official fall tally shows. When the delta variant hit this summer, parents rushed to sign up for the county’s virtual schools. The demand exceeded the capacity and some parents whose children didn’t get in decided to appeal and hope they still would be admitted to online classes. When those children didn’t appear in September at school buildings, they weren’t counted and were dropped from the rolls, as required by state guidelines. County officials believe some of those students may have returned to in-person classes.
Howard County’s enrollment was 58,868 in the fall of 2019 and, like other school systems, it dropped by thousands of students last year. It is up to 57,754 this school year, still below the pre-pandemic levels. While it has attracted more ninth graders than in recent years, the elementary grade numbers remain depressed.
In Harford County, enrollment has gone from 38,400 in the fall of 2019 to 37,900 this fall, nearly making up for significant declines last year.
Anne Arundel County is still missing about 800 students from its 2019 enrollment of 84,900 students.