PORTSMOUTH, Va. — Public school students will return to schools in a couple weeks, but how many students will be back in the classroom?
School enrollment in Hampton Roads declined dramatically last year, with significant decreases in Pre-K and kindergarten classes.
“The pandemic adds stress, parents are already overwhelmed," said Loretha Stills, Parent and Family Engagement Specialist for Portsmouth Public Schools. "Do I let my young child go out to school, or keep him home with me - as a parent I know that can be very challenging to make that decision."
Since 2004, Hampton Roads public school enrollment has typically decreased by about 0.5% each year, with a small increase in 2019.
In 2020, school enrollment dropped by more than 4.5%, a decrease more than eight times the annual average.
Hampton Roads Planning District Commission regional economist Katherine Rainone analyzed the data reported by the Virginia Department of Education.
"When there’s a big change in something, that’s when we think our alarm bells are going off," Rainone said. "To me, it was just a crazy amount of decline in that fall enrollment for pre-K and kindergarten."
Pre-K isn’t required in Virginia, and schools reported an enrollment decrease of nearly 1 in 4 students: a 24.7% drop across all of Hampton Roads.
Kindergarten enrollment dropped by more than 16%, which educators attribute to pandemic-related concerns.
"So a lot of parents are choosing to homeschool their child or add other resources, and a lot of parents are working from home," said Stills.
Declining enrollment creates learning gaps. Aside from encouraging registration, Portsmouth Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Elie Bracy said there’s only so much teachers can do.
“If they’re not in school, then we can’t teach them," Bracy said. "We’re going to address those that are present.”
The enrollment data shows disparities as well. White student enrollment dropped by 8%, more than twice the decreases for all other races.
At the same time, the percentage of "economically disadvantaged" students in Hampton Roads public schools increased from 43% to 46% following the enrollment changes.
Economically disadvantaged students is a classification used by VDOE that includes qualifying factors like: If a student is eligible for free or reduced meals, if a student is eligible for Medicaid, or if a student receives money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
School leaders said they can only speculate about the causes, including family resources, homeschooling communities, a shift to private schools or many other factors.
So the big question – what happens this year?
"I think the numbers are going to go back up, I can already see we have more enrolled now than we did last year," Still said.
Schools are still accepting student registrations, so 2021 enrollment counts aren't final.
Plus, administrators said many families apply late and some may be having difficulty getting a medical appointment for a child's required immunizations.
Rainone said she wants to see if enrollment reports return to pre-pandemic levels.
"I'm looking forward to 2021 data to see what’s it look like now," she said. "If it’s something new [the HRPDC will] make sure we keep an eye on it for the following years to understand equity issues across all sorts of economic indicators."
The Virginia Department of Education typically collects enrollment data by Sept. 30.
Data for SY21-22 likely won’t be available until the end of the year, or early next year.