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Thousands of Maryland students left public schools last year amid COVID. Will they return this fall?

Thinking back on her daughter’s second grade year with school almost entirely online, Kristi Schulman felt a knot in her stomach.

The White Marsh mom said some online learning days ended with tears, despite the best efforts of Baltimore County teachers and her husband’s new work-from-home arrangement. Her daughter, Harper, worked hard to learn reading and writing from a family laptop, but often needed to call Schulman at work for computer help.

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With another daughter heading into kindergarten this year, the parents asked themselves whether they could do it all again — especially if public schools are forced to close. The family enrolled both children in a local Catholic school.

“I just don’t have the confidence they’re going to stick it out and push through,” Schulman said of in-person learning at public schools this fall.

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The Schulman children are among thousands of Maryland students leaving public education during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the health emergency shuttered schools across the state last year, tens of thousands decided to send their kids to private schools or start home schooling rather than sign up for virtual learning.

An analysis of data by The Baltimore Sun and Big Local News shows that the state lost 27,000 children between September 2020 and September 2021, at a time when enrollment had been projected to grow. Schools in rural areas of the state lost proportionately more students than metropolitan school districts surrounding Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Kindergarten and prekindergarten classes, the latter of which remains optional in Maryland, saw the most staggering losses in enrollment last year.

Kindergarten alone shrank more than 10% across the state while prekindergarten decreased by more than 27%. In the Baltimore region, those losses were most pronounced in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. For instance, some schools saw 50% or more of their kindergarten students vanish.

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Rodgers Forge Elementary in Baltimore County, one of the county’s highest-performing elementary schools, had 87 kindergartners before the pandemic and 42 last year.

Principal Missy Fanshaw said some parents didn’t want their child’s first school experience to be through a computer camera. So they decided to hold their child back for a year, home school or enroll in a private school that had stayed in-person “so they could have that real, authentic kindergarten” experience with socialization.

But with school ready to return more or less to normal this year, albeit with masks, social distancing and other safety measures, Fanshaw said she has seen a 40% increase in students enrolled in kindergarten for the fall. She now has three of four kindergarten classrooms full.

Whether that trend is reflected at other schools and across the state remains unknown. Anne Arundel County has seen increases in its elementary grade enrollments, but the kindergarten numbers are still down with two weeks to go before school starts.

Baltimore City schools lost fewer than 2% of their students compared with 3.4% in Baltimore County and 3.1% in Carroll County. Harford County lost 2.9%, Howard lost 2.7% and Anne Arundel lost 2.3%.

White students, who make up about a third of Maryland’s student population, left public education at a higher rate than students of other races. And rural areas lost proportionally more students than urban areas.

In some Maryland school districts, enrollment grew in high school grades, offsetting some of the declines in the early years.

Parents saw what educators identified early on — the most difficult grades to teach online were the early grades — including early reading and literacy skills.

Enrollment for the upcoming school year continues for many public schools through the end of the month. Administrators say it’s too early to know whether declines will persist into the fall, but private schools are seeing a boost in enrollment figures.

Catholic schools managed by the Archdiocese of Baltimore have seen upticks in enrollment, which Archbishop William E. Lori credits to schools reopening quickly during the pandemic.

And Peter F. Baily, executive director of the Association of Independent Maryland and D.C. Schools, said enrollment “has remained stable or has increased during the pandemic era. We have seen some individual school enrollments increase dramatically during this period.”

One of those schools is St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields-Episcopal School in Severna Park, which saw significant gains. It began last school year with 209 students and expects about 295 this school year, according to interim head Charles Sachs. The school moved walls and improved its ventilation system to accommodate the increased enrollment.

Sachs said the school always has been known for its strong early childhood program, but it sometimes lost students to Anne Arundel County’s strong elementary schools in Severna Park. In the past year, families have decided to stay at the school despite the $14,000 a year tuition because public schools weren’t open for in-person learning.

St. Martin’s has been able to offer an option for families that wouldn’t have been in the market for private school, he said.

“When they came here in desperation, they were very impressed” by small class sizes and other factors, he said.

Baltimore City faces a different challenge than other districts. The school system had one of the state’s smallest enrollment declines, but when students disengage from school they often just vanish. It was up to the school system to track down about 2,000 such students, according to Roger Shaw, a school system administrator in charge of finding those students.

After reaching out to families using emails, text messages and phone calls, school officials then tried home visits, knocking on doors and leaving letters to get a missing student engaged in school again.

When those outreach efforts didn’t pay off, the system turned to Concentric Educational Solutions and local nonprofit The Movement Team, which sent specialists into the community to figure out where families were by visiting pastors, coaches and others.

Sometimes tracking down students took serendipity and patience. Shaw said one student couldn’t be found even after school personnel got phone numbers from his middle school teachers. Then one day Shaw was driving through a neighborhood and spotted the student. He jumped out of his car and approached the student, who said he just couldn’t deal with online learning. Shaw said he was living in a crowded house with a guardian who needed dialysis and he took care of her.

The student came back for summer school and now he has made up three credits and will be back in school this fall, Shaw said.

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In another case, Shaw said, community members told school officials to wait for 15 minutes at a front door after knocking, long enough to allow an elderly grandmother moving slowly to get to the door. It worked and the student is back in school.

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Student enrollment declines could have long-term consequences for school systems if they continue this fall. State and local funding is based on a per-pupil formula. Because of the pandemic, the state decided to fund schools as though they had their 2019 enrollments, but if those students don’t come back or there is another decline, school systems could see funding declines.

Maryland’s enrollment declines mirrored a national trend.

“Enrollment shifts this year are still a big unknown,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. “My expectation is that the longer the pandemic goes on, the more families will stick with alternatives like home schooling, pods, charter schools and private schools.”

Lake said districts will encourage more flight if they don’t offer a virtual option or respond to safety concerns this upcoming school year.

Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said he believes families will return to the public schools in the long run. Some school districts already are reporting large increases in kindergarten classes, he said, as children held out for a year go back and combine with this year’s kindergartners into one large class.

But Domenech and others said enrollments could decline again as parents see the effect of rising COVID cases in communities where schools already reopened.

Annette Anderson, the deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, said there has been a lot of “handwringing” among parents as schools prepare to open. That stress is natural when parents and educators are grappling with rapid changes to the way public schools operate in a pandemic.

But what was true in March 2020 may not be so in August 2021, she said.

In Maryland, many systems pledged that schools will open to students this fall, which Anderson likened to putting too many eggs in one basket. Rather, public schools should focus on clear communication with parents and develop reliable alternatives to in-person learning if cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, Anderson said.

That may prove difficult for school systems that struggled to pivot as the pandemic evolved last year.

“Systems are not meant to be malleable,” Anderson said. “They’re meant to be impervious to change.”

Kristi Schulman said she doesn’t plan to change her mind about her school choice for her daughters. They’re sending them to the private St. Stephen School in Kingsville this fall. And the family doesn’t intend to return to public education before the girls reach high school now that they’re making the switch.

The Schulmans were less than five years away from paying off their home mortgage, but refinanced to afford private education for their kids through eighth grade.

“Now I just ask myself if I’m doing the right thing,” Schulman said. “It’s a lot of money and a lot of extra overtime I’m picking up at work.”

Putting cost aside, Schulman said she felt an overwhelming sense of relief after deciding to enroll the girls in private school. She was tired of feeling stressed out around her kids, and didn’t want to spend another year emotionally consumed by online schooling.

“I was wound up tighter than an eight-day clock,” she said.

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