During COVID-19, student enrollment is declining in Twin Cities public school districts

A boy sits at a desk behind a plexiglass shield.
Most Twin Cities metro area school districts are reporting declining enrollment this fall as the pandemic forces many schools to limit in-person instruction. District leaders say some families are opting for homeschool or private school.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Fewer families are sending their children to Twin Cities public school districts during the coronavirus pandemic than expected, portending financial troubles for many K-12 districts.

A new survey from the Association of Metropolitan School Districts finds that student enrollment from early October is down in nearly every district that responded to the questionnaire. Those declines range from 1 to 4.8 percent of what district leaders had anticipated back in June, even as the pandemic was well under way.

The estimates are far from comprehensive but offer an early picture of declining student enrollment in a region of the state where students are most likely to be receiving hybrid instruction or full-time distance learning because of the virus. 

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“This is definitely not normal,” said Scott Croonquist, the association’s executive director. “Many [districts] might have already been predicting a decline, but it’s an even bigger decline than they had built into their budget.” 

The pandemic appears to be driving the enrollment declines. Families are worried about being exposed to COVID-19, or they’re not satisfied with the learning options their districts are offering. 

As a result, parents have opted for alternatives ranging from homeschool to private instruction. Others are choosing Post Secondary Enrollment Options, or PSEO, to have high school students start early on college-level classes. 

Delaying kindergarten

The most significant drops are seen among kindergarteners. For example, in Brooklyn Center Community Schools, kindergarten enrollment dropped by 20 percent from earlier estimates. Some families across the state have opted to keep their youngsters home and delay their start to kindergarten, or are sending them to day care instead of school-based kindergarten classes.

The district that saw the biggest drop in enrollment out of the 42 districts that took the survey was Wayzata Public Schools, which is facing a 4.8 percent decline from earlier projections. In the St. Paul and Minneapolis districts, where students are remote learning full time, the enrollment declines registered at 1.7 percent and 2.8 percent, respectively.

These numbers might change. Families might decide to enroll their kids in public schools later this year. Or they might decide the opposite: they might decide they’re not happy with how things are going and they might unenroll their kids from these schools later this year. 

The state education department will have a more comprehensive picture of what’s happening early next year. 

Across the state

It’s not just metro area schools that are seeing declines. Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said districts in greater Minnesota have also seen students withdraw.  

“The whole COVID disruption since early March has really thrown the educational delivery model on its head,” Schneidawind said. “The size of the districts doesn’t really matter. ... It impacts most if not every one of our districts.”

At Byron Public Schools in southern Minnesota, the number of students choosing homeschool or PSEO has nearly doubled since last year, according to district counts. 

In the Menahga district in northern Minnesota, enrollment is down by more than 230 students. That could translate to a 22 percent budget loss. 

“I don’t think we’ve ever had the degree of uncertainty that we’ve had this year because of COVID-19. This is all new territory,” Schneidawind said. “We know that there’s some federal stimulus money out there that’s been helpful. But we also know, and our districts are sharing with us that that’s not going to plug every hole.”