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Howard County public school enrollment increases slightly in February

Enrollment has been a constant point of discussion in the Howard County school system and the Board of Education.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered school buildings in March 2020, the Howard County Public School System’s numbers starkly dropped in September and continued trickling downward in the fall and winter.

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However, in February, the district’s enrollment increased slightly — the first month with an augmented enrollment since last spring. The system’s enrollment increased by 128 students, from 57,070 in January to 57,198 in February.

“We understood that the enrollment decline would be temporary,” school system spokesperson Brian Bassett wrote in a statement. “The enrollment number is always one that fluctuates monthly, and we will continue to monitor our numbers on a school-by-school basis to ensure we are able to welcome in as many students as possible while adhering to health and safety protocols and providing a conducive learning environment for all students.”

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Enrollment in a normal year is crucial for school systems. Annual funding from the state is tied to enrollment, while money from the county is correlated with enrollment. Most school systems in Maryland that had virtual learning saw enrollment declines in the fall.

This school year, though, it’s likely the state legislature or the governor might not hold county school systems accountable for enrollment decreases amid the pandemic. Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposed budget maintains state aid to school systems, and Hogan said at a news conference in January that districts will not receive less funding in fiscal year 2022 due to enrollment declines.

To start the 2019-20 academic year, Howard’s enrollment was 58,868. The enrollment in May was 59,447.

In September, though, 2,154 fewer students enrolled in public pre-kindergarten through 12th grade schools in Howard County than May’s enrollment numbers. Then, from October through January, an average of 55 students unenrolled.

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Nearly 65% of the new students are in elementary school. Under the district’s hybrid learning plan, which began March 1, elementary school students, specifically those in pre-kindergarten through second grade, return first. Virtual learning is also more challenging for some elementary school students than for secondary students, and studies of COVID-19 transmission has shown that children under 10 are significantly less likely to transmit the virus to others.

On March 1, 4,000 students returned to classrooms as part of the district’s five-day-a-week program. Over the next weeks, about 25,000 more students will return for hybrid learning two days a week.

“Superintendent [Michael Martirano] has asked all school principals to reconnect with families who were not enrolled in ... schools this year to help them understand our plan and gauge their intent,” Bassett wrote.

Board of Education to begin ‘hybrid’ meeting format

When the coronavirus arrived in Maryland in March 2020, the county Board of Education moved their meetings to a fully virtual format.

For the past year, the board has held all its meetings virtually, as has the Howard County Council.

Starting Thursday, though, the school board will begin to phase back to in-person meetings, according to a school system news release. Some board members and staff will participate in person at the Board of Education building in Ellicott City, while the rest will continue to be remote.

Public forum speakers can choose whether to talk virtually or in person, and the system is allowing 16 community members to sign up to attend meetings while also following safety protocols. The deadline to sign up (by emailing Kathy Hanks at kathleen_hanks@hcpss.org) for public forum is typically two days before meetings.

Guests must wear masks and maintain social distance.

Access blocked to video streaming websites on school devices, network

Before the start of the hybrid learning schedule on March 1, the county public school system announced it was blocking access to video streaming services on its network and on devices issued to students.

Websites such as Netflix, Hulu, HBO and TikTok can now no longer be visited by students or staff on the system’s network or on Chromebook laptops.

“These services are not approved instructional technology sites and use of these sites has created network performance issues,” according to news release.

Nearly two-thirds of the system’s network usage is for “noninstructional websites” and usage of those sites presents “potential security risks,” according to the release.

Many of the restricted websites use significant amounts of bandwidth and can slow speeds for network users.

“With the increased network demands for hybrid learning and the increase in the number of technology devices being used on the [school system’s] network, staff and students are experiencing buffering during some of their hybrid instructional sessions due to users accessing these noninstructional sites during school hours,” the release states. “The use of noninstructional video streaming services is one of the major contributing factors for the reported internet performance issues.”

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