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Harford school enrollment drops by more than 1,000 as students withdraw, fewer enroll during COVID-19 pandemic

Wearing her matching tie-dyed mask, Prospect Mill Elementary School third grader Krynn Robinson works on her lesson in class last month. Enrollment at Harford County Public Schools has decreased by about 1,000 this year, with more students doing home schooling or enrolling in private schools due to virtual learning.
Wearing her matching tie-dyed mask, Prospect Mill Elementary School third grader Krynn Robinson works on her lesson in class last month. Enrollment at Harford County Public Schools has decreased by about 1,000 this year, with more students doing home schooling or enrolling in private schools due to virtual learning. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Student enrollment in Harford County Public Schools has decreased by more than 1,000 compared to enrollment during the same time a year ago, as families have withdrawn their children and the number of new students transferring in dropped, likely because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to school system officials.

Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent for operations, discussed the assumptions officials have made in terms of current enrollment and projecting future enrollment numbers, based on current conditions, during a Board of Education meeting Monday. Schools closed for in-person instruction in mid-March as the COVID-19 pandemic began in Maryland and education has remained virtual through most of the current school year since classes began Sept. 8.

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Multiple parents have expressed their frustration, both online and during public comment sessions of school board, about the toll virtual education has taken on their children’s mental health while learning at home. Several protests also have happened in front of the HCPS headquarters in Bel Air as parents demand schools reopen.

Schools did open for hybrid learning, with elementary schoolers learning in person one day a week and virtually the rest of the time, in late October and early November, but officials returned to all-virtual learning in November as the number of COVID-19 cases rose dramatically in Harford County.

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“We’ve had to make various assumptions, given the impacts of COVID-19 and the decisions that families have made with enrolling their student,” Brown told school board members.

Officials believe that some families have relocated during the pandemic, but “the biggest assumption that we’ve made is, that we believe that parents are finding other options for educating their children, where home schooling and private school is an option,” Brown noted.

He also touched on how many families are not enrolling their children in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten.

“We had a significant decrease, compared to 2019, in pre-K and kindergarten students, in excess of 220 students at those grade levels,” Brown said.

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The total enrollment for the 2020-21 school year, based on the school system’s annual Sept. 30 report, is 37,362, a net decrease of 1,083 from the prior year. The enrollment for the 2019-20 school year was 38,445, part of a growing increase in HCPS enrollment in recent years.

The largest decrease in enrollment from last year to this year came at the elementary school level, with 947 fewer students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. There were decreases at nearly every grade level, except for first grade, which showed a gain of 38 students.

Enrollment decreased by 210 students at the middle school level, although it went up by 21 in seventh grade, and high school enrollment decreased by 15 students. Ninth through 11th grade saw gains, but there were 169 fewer high school seniors this year compared to last year.

Enrollment also increased in special education programs at the John Archer School in Bel Air and the Alternative Education Program at the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen. Enrollment at those two schools went up by 89, from 198 to 287 students, according to Brown’s presentation.

Brown discussed the drop in new students transferring from private schools, other public school districts and home school, the first such drop for HCPS in a decade.

“We have, for the first time in 10 years, on average 900 fewer new students enrolled in Harford County Public Schools,” he said.

There also has been an increase in the number of HCPS students going in the opposite direction, as families who can do so take their children out of Harford schools and transfer them to private or home schools, or other public school systems, according to Brown.

“The combination of the increase in withdrawals, and then the decrease in new students registering, we have a delta of over 1,400 when compared to previous years,” he said of the change in enrollment.

Sonja Karwacki is an elected member of the board who represents communities in Havre de Grace, Abingdon, Belcamp, Riverside and Perryman. She noted that many schools in her district are in areas where parents “do not have the fiscal resources to place their children in private or parochial schools.”

Families in those communities depend on the public schools to provide “consistency and a safe environment in which their children can continue learning,” Karwacki noted.

“Based on the people I have spoken to, I believe that, once we reopen, that many of these parents are going to be coming back into the school system because they really need us to be there for them,” she said.

Karwacki expressed concern about state funding for Harford schools in next year’s budget, as enrollment is a key component of the state’s funding formula for K-12 education, and whether that formula will be adjusted.

Superintendent Sean Bulson said public school enrollment has decreased throughout Maryland by about 34,000 and that Harford’s decline of 1,083 is “in line” with what is happening statewide.

There have been discussions among members of Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration and state legislators about funding for local school districts, and the potential of instituting a “hold harmless provision.”

That provision takes into account that, despite the official Sept. 30 enrollment numbers, that figure could change later this year depending on whether school districts can reopen their schools and enrollment picks up, according to Bulson, who noted that officials in Harford have heard some parents say their children will return as school as schools reopen while others could take longer to come back to HCPS.

“We do know, at the state level they’re looking at the budget and what that will mean in terms of accounting for the fact that all school districts are down, but that might not be a permanent state,” Bulson said.

He also stressed that the hold harmless provision is under consideration, but local school officials will not be certain until the state budget is unveiled and adopted by the General Assembly in early 2021.

Harford school officials also have made assumptions that enrollment will increase over the next five years, despite what Brown called “the anomaly of COVID.”

“We believe that in-person instruction will take place in 2021, and that over time we will have an increase in students, but they all are not going to come back next year,” Brown said.

More families are expected to register their children for HCPS over the next five to six years, and enrollment will get closer to what officials had projected for future years — it is expected to be 39,307 by 2027, according to the Sept. 30 enrollment report for 2020.

“Each year we anticipate, with kindergarten students and pre-kindergarten students returning to Harford County, that we will slowly see incremental increases year by year,” Brown said.

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