COVID drives home schooling surge; public school enrollment drops

Desks sit empty as a teacher talks in front of a screen.
Fourth grade teacher Kelly Brant stands in her classroom as she talks to her students who were learning remotely at Park Brook Elementary School in Brooklyn Park. While prekindergarten through second grade students returned for in-person learning, the older elementary students will return to the building for class in February.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

Updated: 4:30 p.m.

The COVID-19 crisis is driving dramatic changes in Minnesota public school enrollments, including a drop of some 17,000 students in the past year, with families delaying kindergarten and choosing options outside the public system.

Overall public school enrollment declined by 2 percent this academic year, driven largely by a 9 percent decrease in kindergarten enrollment, the Minnesota Department of Education said in a report published Friday.

It’s the first time enrollment numbers have fallen in nearly a decade, said Terri Yetter, director of the Education Department’s school finance division.

Many families chose to hold their kids back or send them to private schools with in-person options. Private schools saw a 12.4 percent increase in kindergarten enrollment.

Home-school numbers rose nearly 50 percent this academic year. That surge likely came from parents who wanted to limit family exposure to the virus or who were frustrated with school-based remote instruction.

White students drove most of the decline in enrollment in public schools, falling 3.7 percent from the prior school year, which translates to more than 20,000 students.

The enrollment shifts are significant since school districts receive their state education money using a per-pupil formula. On average, one student in Minnesota public schools generates roughly $10,164 in general education revenue, the Education Department said.

So if enrollment goes down, school budgets get cut. 

School leaders will have to meet the challenges of next school year with less money to draw, said Deb Henton, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

“They're in a very difficult situation with trying to reconcile their budgets, based on the enrollment they have this year, and anticipating the students returning next year, and obviously trying to meet all the needs that perhaps went unmet this year while students are out of school,” Henton said.

Districts are also trying to plan summer programming and remedial learning for those students who’ve struggled with shuttered classrooms. They’re also making preparations to support the mental health needs that students will likely have after a harrowing pandemic year. 

Gov. Tim Walz has proposed a budget that would help address the dip in enrollment, as well as summer school, tutoring and mental health support for students.

There’s also a bill in the Minnesota House that, if passed, would give districts the option to base their budgets on enrollment numbers from this year or last — whichever number is greater. 

School leaders say they need legislators to act swiftly. Often education packages at the Capitol don’t come through until the end of May or start of June, and administrators say that will be too late for them to make summer and fall plans for their students. 

And the state’s largest teachers union warns that the quality of education will suffer if the Legislature fails to approve additional funding to offset the losses stemming from declining enrollment.

“Our leaders in the Legislature need to act quickly,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota.

“We can’t let a one-year dip in enrollment force budget cuts that will penalize the students who will return next year,” she said, “especially when schools already needed more resources to help our students rebound academically and recover emotionally after this horrible pandemic year.” 

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