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Delaware's public school enrollment is down; do funding cuts lie ahead?

Natalia Alamdari
Delaware News Journal

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed the school district with the steepest drop in enrollment by percentage. The story has been updated to show that Seaford had the greatest decrease.

After years of steady growth, Delaware public schools saw a decrease in enrollment across the state, reflecting national trends likely driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

All but four of Delaware’s 19 public school districts saw a decline in enrollment this year, according to attendance numbers released by the Department of Education this week. Even those that did see growth saw it on a smaller scale than past years, with Appoquinimink seeing the highest increase of 1.5%.

Seaford School District saw the steepest rate of decrease, dropping from 3,516 students last fall to 3,278 as of the Nov. 13 count, a decrease of 6.8%.

Nationwide, a number of factors brought on by the pandemic have contributed to the widespread decrease in student enrollment. 

Most Delaware school districts started the year virtually – and struggled with online attendance. Even as school districts have scrambled to get every student a laptop or tablet, there are still pockets of children in all three counties who lack a device or internet connection.

Some families have opted for private schools, which are more likely to hold in-person classes, or have pulled their children out for homeschooling. 

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“It’s absolutely a surprise,” said John Marinucci, executive director of the Delaware School Boards Association, after the state had seen steady growth in both regular enrollment and special education enrollment during years prior. 

“Most concerning is the fact that there are kids out there that we know we’re not getting to. You can’t go knock on their door and drag them to school, or sit them in front of the computer and say, ‘learn.’ Truancy is very different now than it was before COVID.” 

In a normal year, public school attendance numbers are taken through the annual unit count, which determines state funding for each school. Attendance is based on who is physically present during the weeklong count at the end of September. 

But this year, measuring attendance wasn’t as straightforward. Across Delaware’s 19 school districts and 23 charter schools, attendance policies are a varied mix of Zoom attendance and assignment completion, making it harder to count the number of students "present." 

The Department of Education delayed this year’s unit count until mid-November, giving school districts a chance to settle into the new routine of virtual learning. 

For many districts, the transition to hybrid learning overlapped with the two-week unit count, adding another layer of complication to tracking attendance. 

Students sit socially distanced in class at EastSide Charter SchoolThursday, Oct. 8, 2020.

FROM THE SUMMER:What is school attendance in the era of virtual learning? The state is still trying to figure that out.

With the switch to hybrid learning came more consistent in-person attendance from students who hadn’t previously been attending virtual lessons, teachers have said. 

But still, districts struggled to track down students by the Nov. 15 count. 

While attendance in Christina School District has been declining for years, this year’s decrease of 890 students, or 6.4%, was the most drastic the district has seen. Superintendent Dan Shelton noted that identifying and tracking students in the remote setting has been difficult. 

Prior to the pandemic, the district did not have a device for every student, and with schools across the country ordering tablets and Chromebooks at the same time, Christina is still waiting on delayed shipments.

At some schools in the district, students who don’t have a device at home receive paper packets from their school each week. 

Downstate, Seaford School District saw enrollment dip by 238 students, or 6.8%. And neighboring Indian River, one of the state’s largest districts, saw its first decrease in enrollment since 2011. 

"Perhaps they moved, maybe just dropped out. In any event, they are not in the system anymore to be able to teach," Indian River Board of Education member Charles Hattier said. "And with the large growth of population in this area, [it] does not make a lot of sense."

Students have class outside during the first day of school at Seaford Central Elementary School Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

While many school superintendents cited increased private school enrollment and homeschooling as causes for the decrease, even some private schools have noticed a decline. Delaware’s Catholic schools saw a 3.14% decrease in enrollment since last year, said Robert Krebs, spokesman for the Diocese of Wilmington.

“It would be easy to say it’s because of COVID. But that’s really too superficial,” said Jeffrey Menzer, superintendent of Colonial School District. “The bottom line is, what we’re doing to meet the needs or not meet the needs of families. We don’t want families leaving us for reasons that we control because of quality of service or a lack of a service.” 

The decreased enrollment could also affect school funding moving forward. 

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In Delaware, school funding and the number of teachers funded by the state are driven by the number of students in each building.

From year to year, school districts have a funding safety net to help avoid drastic staffing cuts when enrollment numbers fluctuate: In the spring, districts report estimated enrollment numbers for the upcoming school year. The state will provide funding for 98% of those students. 

“While that seems like quite a bit, if you take a large district, that could mean several positions,” Marinucci said. 

A sharp decrease this year could also have lasting impacts, Marinucci said. 

“The problem is that next year, we’re going to be guaranteed funding at 98% of this year’s units, which are going to be significantly lower,” Marinucci said.

That, combined with a likely attendance increase as COVID-19 vaccinations become more available over the next year and the hope that schools could return to normal, could leave schools understaffed next school year. 

For example, in Red Clay, the district's decline in students equates to the loss of 23 units, or the potential loss of 23 teachers. The district expects the dip in students to be temporary and predicts that enrollment will rebound next year.

Castle Hills Elementary School principal Janissa Nuneville shows the set up of a kindergarten classroom, ready for year of remote and socially distant learning on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020.

“The concern is that if we have a significant decrease in units, then we’re going to have a significant decrease in the funds available when the expenses haven’t gone down,” Marinucci said. “It’s going to be a difficult couple of years for this bubble to run through the system.” 

At a time when districts are struggling to staff schools through quarantines, every unit becomes essential. 

Menzer fears the decline in public school enrollment could start to fracture the community.  

“I want my neighborhood to have a high-quality school, and I want people to be proud to be going there,” Menzer said. “When you hear people are going to other options, that creates questions around that. Whether it’s from the pandemic or not, it just kind of lingers. You don’t really want to have that.”

Shannon Marvel McNaught contributed to this report. 

Natalia Alamdari covers education for The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2312 or nalamdari@delawareonline.com.