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Pandemic, remote learning cause precipitous drops in public school enrollment

School Desk
Posted at 5:55 PM, Feb 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-05 18:09:34-05

CLEVELAND — More than 50,000 fewer students enrolled in Ohio public schools in the fall of 2020 compared to the previous year as the ongoing pandemic and widespread adoption of remote learning led some families to consider other options, according to new data published by the Ohio Department of Education.

The substantial drop in enrollment was particularly pronounced in urban and major urban areas. The grade levels with the sharpest declines were pre-K and kindergarten. The enrollment declines, which amounted to 3%, were several times larger than in years past.

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According to ODE data, the decline in enrollment highest two major concerns: worries about the feasibility and quality of remote instruction as well as questions about the safety of in-person learning during an ongoing pandemic.

The obstacles and hurdles faced by districts of all sizes in Ohio are both unique and similar. Despite being 11 months into the pandemic, familiarity hasn’t made the challenges any easier, said Dr. Frank O’Linn, the superintendent of schools at the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.

“This year has been a tremendous challenge, especially for our catholic schools which have been trying to provide options for our parents and families,” O’Linn said. “Teachers and our school leaders did nothing short of reinvent the practice of teaching and learning this year with so many of our schools having students remote at the same time with classmates that are in person. It’s something that our schools have never done before.”

The approach to instruction on a school-by-school basis has, at times, been a moving target, Dr. O’Linn said. Some schools have had to alternate between in-person and remote instruction while other schools have remained in-person since the school year began.

According to enrollment data provided by the Diocese, elementary school enrollment has dropped from 26,366 students in 2018 to 23,637 in 2021, which amounts to a 10% decline. While notable, the decline is significantly less than the drop-offs experienced by other school districts. Pre-K enrollment at the Diocese remains largely steady from 2018 to 2020 but has declined by nearly 24% since last year.

“Our catholic schools across the eight counties in Northeast Ohio have seen different impacts across the variety of settings we serve,” O’Linn said. “The pandemic has definitely had impacts in terms of family’s concerns but also the economic strength of the communities. Our system — and I say this in a context of a system that has faced long term declines for 60 years as costs to educate continue to rise and it becomes more challenging for the church to provide this education — we saw some changes in those patterns overall because of COVID-19. Elementary enrollment, while it did decline overall across our eight counties, it declined less than it has historically. In fact, in our lowest grades, we saw our first second and third grade we saw a steady — and in some cases — slightly larger enrollment.”

According to ODE data, urban and major urban areas reported an average enrollment decline of more than 4%. At Cleveland Metropolitan School District, the largest district in Northeast Ohio, pre-K enrollment has declined by more than 50% since the start of the pandemic, according to enrollment figures obtained through an open records request. Kindergarten enrollment at CMSD has declined by more than 20% since the start of the pandemic.

Geeya Gibson and her husband, Ornette, of Seven Hills were tasked with the difficult decision to hold off on sending their son to kindergarten at the start of the 2020-2021 school year. Like many children, their son’s pre-K education was derailed during the pandemic-related lockdowns in March.

“We battled back and forth, back and forth. In the end, we thought, ‘we can’t.' It’s not going to be helpful for him to go into that environment then maybe have to repeat kindergarten because we pushed for him to be in school,” Gibson said. “I knew how my fifth grader was struggling in March when she had to [learn remotely]. I thought, ‘well, if this is a struggle for somebody that has already been in school, imagine putting that stress on a kindergartner.'”

Gibson’s sentiment highlighted a prevailing sentiment and correlation seen in ODE’s enrollment data. On average, schools that adopted fully remote instruction witnessed enrollment declines of 33% for pre-K and 16% for kindergarten.

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Schools that adopted a hybrid model fared much better but still reported significant declines in enrollment.

"With [my son] not having the consistent education from March until the time school was starting back up, [sending him to kindergarten] would be setting him up for failure,” Gibson said. “Having to do it virtually, that’s another setback.”

As for other districts in Northeast Ohio, Medina schools reported a 52% decline in pre-k enrollment and a nearly 20% decline in kindergarten enrollment since 2018. Parma schools reported the smallest declines, according to data obtained through an open records request.

The two venues of instruction that reported enrollment gains were home schooling (25% growth) and community e-schools (50% growth).

As the Diocese now turns its attention to getting its staff lined up and scheduled to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. O’Linn said educators will soon be tasked with yet another challenge: how to move forward post-pandemic.

“The technology increases that we have had and the systems we have in place will be valuable going forward,” O’Linn said.

In particular, O’Linn said the school system will need to pay careful attention to individual students and the impact that the pandemic has had on their education.

“It’s not a matter of catching up. It’s not something like ‘while it happened in 2020, by 2022 we’ll have it behind us,” Dr. O’Linn said. “We know the importance of opportunity to learn and of time on task. We’re going to have to understand how these disruptions affected our students individually. It’s no longer about what the whole class or grade level experienced or a whole school for that matter. But certainly what the individual students need will have to guide our actions going forward.”