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Metro Atlanta school districts report drops in enrollment, fewer kindergarten students

By Amanda C. Coyne – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Ty Tagami – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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School districts around metro Atlanta are reporting drops in enrollment as students have returned to school this fall facing the challenge of coronavirus and virtual learning.

Even though the drops are small percentages of last year’s enrollment, it could cost the districts in state funding, which is based on the number of students districts teach. In Fulton County, Superintendent Mike Looney warned the district’s enrollment drop could also lead to teacher furloughs or layoffs.

The drop varies among districts — Gwinnett County Public Schools is down by 1.8%, Fulton County School District is down 4%, DeKalb County is down 5% and Clayton County is down 4.3%.

While the cause of the drop isn’t clear, virtual learning due to the coronavirus pandemic has been frustrating for many parents and students, leading some to seek out other options. Some parents have opted to send their children to private school to ensure they can learn in a classroom setting. Others have hired tutors or joined “learning pods” where an instructor helps a small group of children with virtual learning programs.

Multiple Atlanta-area school systems, including Cobb, Gwinnett and Fulton, have reported significant drops in kindergarten enrollment. Districts were prevented from holding in-person kindergarten registration events in the spring because of the pandemic.

In a video message Tuesday, Clayton County Superintendent Morcease Beasley personally urged parents to enroll their children in pre-K or kindergarten if they hadn’t already in a Tuesday video message. Clayton has 19.4% fewer kindergartners this year than expected, and 16.1% fewer pre-K students. Kindergarten enrollment was also down significantly in Gwinnett, Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton.

Georgia does not require children to be enrolled in school until they are six years old, so it is also possible that some parents chose to delay starting kindergarten, said Gwinnett County Public Schools spokeswoman Sloan Roach.

Districts’ approaches to teaching in the pandemic vary, and in-person instruction is not an option for all students. DeKalb, Clayton and Atlanta are relying on fully virtual classes. Cobb has been all virtual since August, but will bring students back in October. Gwinnett finished its phased return to classrooms Sept. 9, with 40% of its students choosing to learn in person. Fulton has allowed special education students and students in kindergarten through second grade to return for a partial day each week, and could welcome back students of all grades by Oct. 14 if COVID-19 case rates continue to decline.

Renita Walls’ 5-year-old son Isaiah started kindergarten virtually with Renaissance Elementary School in Fairburn. It quickly became clear that online learning wasn’t working. Isaiah, who has autism, was struggling without the social interaction he would have had with peers in person, Walls said. The long hours of screen time led to “meltdowns” that he hadn’t experienced in months.

She pulled him out of Fulton County Schools and enrolled him in Creative Beginnings, a private school for pre-K and kindergarten students. The monthly cost is almost as much as her mortgage, but Walls said it was the best choice for her son.

Walls said she grew frustrated with what felt like a lack of options when her autistic son was struggling to learn virtually. The only alternatives Fulton County offered were watching recorded lessons on their own schedule, or completing a 68-page workbook each week to substitute for the virtual classes, she said.

“That’s basically nothing,” Walls said. “Nobody made any kind of plans for the students who don’t benefit from virtual learning.”

While local tax revenue collected for school districts is not dependent on the number of students, enrollment informs state funding allocations. Georgia counts enrollment each fall and spring, using the numbers to divide billions in tax dollars among the 180 school districts and state charter schools. The next count, the first to occur as schools operate under COVID-19 public health restrictions, is Oct. 6, a spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Education said.

While school districts say their enrollment numbers will not be official before that date, many districts conduct their own unofficial counts in the first weeks of school. It’s those early counts that have shown some districts that their student body is shrinking.

Typically, the state Department of Education provides funding for each student who goes to school for at least one of the 10 days prior to the count date. This year, students not attending in-person will be counted as “present” as long as they are “active” online during any of the 10 days prior to that date, which is Oct. 6. The state will consider them enrolled if they have “been acknowledged through direct interaction” with a teacher. The interaction could include an email or other digital message indicating the student was engaged in learning.

Even fast-growing Gwinnett is reporting a drop in student numbers this fall. Gwinnett schools had projected enrollment of 181,268 for this school year, according to district spokeswoman Sloan Roach, and state data shows there were 180,589 students enrolled in October 2019. As of Sept 9, the district had 177,486 students enrolled, Roach said, down 1.8%.

Fulton County Schools saw a drop from 93,897 students in October 2019 to about 90,000 currently, down about 4%, Superintendent Mike Looney said at a board meeting last week. DeKalb County School District went from 98,800 in October 2019 to 93,774 this month, a 5% drop, according to a district spokeswoman. Clayton County’s enrollment dropped 4.3%. from 54,424 last year to 52,068 this year. Atlanta Public Schools does not have a current enrollment count, a district spokesman said.

Cobb County School District has not seen a significant change in its overall enrollment, but kindergarten numbers are down 19.8% from October 2019 — about 6,400 are enrolled now, and 7,988 were last year. Cobb currently has “about 112,000 students” total, according to a district spokesperson. In October 2019, it recorded 112,097 students, according to state data.

In public meetings, parents have cited their children’s mental health as a chief concern when weighing whether to choose virtual learning. It offers fewer opportunities for kids to socialize with peers and teachers.

Gwinnett County parent Kelly Willyard-Gasper said at the district’s August board of education meeting that she took her children out of public school to ensure they’d get in-classroom instruction. The nearly two months of virtual instruction at the end of the spring semester caused her children so much stress that they developed issues with anxiety and sleeplessness, she said.

“Unfortunately, we have had to pull them out of the Gwinnett County Public Schools system to salvage their mental health,” Willyard-Gasper said. “We put them in a private school with every intention and hope that Gwinnett County Public Schools can get everything back in place without all this flip-flopping around.”

Looney is waiting to see if students in Fulton County may take the same approach: start the year in private school and then return to public school once things have settled. If not, the district may have to consider furloughs or layoffs, he said.

“There may very well come a time where I have to come to the board and indicate that we have to let some people go. I’m just asking for some time before we get to that point,” Looney said.

Walls said she isn’t bringing her son back to Fulton County this year. She said she doesn’t trust the district to provide the consistency or services her son needs.

“I’ve lost faith in Fulton County,” Walls said. “I’m not going to put him back into a situation where people aren’t valuing him and aren’t understanding his needs and working to meet those needs.”