About 37,000 fewer students are enrolled in Massachusetts schools this year, representing a steep decline that far exceeds the usual churn, though the state’s education commissioner expects to see some of those students return to the public school system next year.

Figures presented to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Tuesday showed 911,432 students enrolled across the state’s 400 school districts as of Oct. 1, about 4 percent below the October 2019 numbers.

In each of the previous two years, enrollment decreased by under 3,000 students.

Russell Johnston, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s senior associate commissioner, said 46 percent of the statewide drop in enrollment comes from pre-K and kindergarten. Pre-kindergarten enrollment is down more than 30 percent over last year, falling to 21,177 from 30,616, the department’s data show.

“I think it’s fair to say that a large chunk of children, the loss here, is for the pre-K and kindergarten students, and we expect that many of those children will be back in our system next year,” Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said. “Parents have just opted to keep the kids home for the year, rather than start in the system.”

Riley had said in September that officials were hearing from parents choosing to wait out this tumultuous year before having their young children enter the school system, and from others transferring their kids to Catholic or private schools that offered in-person learning rather than continuing with remote or hybrid instruction in their local districts.

The new numbers do indicate significantly more students leaving public school districts for home-schooling or in-state private schools this year, amid the changes the COVID-19 pandemic has forced on the education realm.

At 7,188, the number of students recorded as exiting their districts for home-schooling this year is about nine times the 802 logged last year. Transfers to Massachusetts private schools shot up from 7,299 to 13,166.

Transfers to out-of-state public or private schools remained relatively stable, Johnston said — 12,255 this year, compared to 12,097 last year.

Thirteen percent of parents who responded to a recent MassINC poll said they’d enrolled a child in a different school than normal this year because of COVID-19.

Board Chair Katherine Craven noted that it won’t be clear until November 2021, “assuming that there’s a return to some sort of normalcy next year,” how many of the students who left public school districts may re-enroll after this year and said she is “cautious about policy decisions that will be interpolated based upon the numbers that we’re seeing.”

October enrollment figures help determine how much money a school district receives from the state, with much of the aid distributed on a per-student basis.

Any funding implications from lower enrollments would not play out until next year’s budget cycle. An education finance reform overhaul signed into law a year ago with the goal of steering more money into the K-12 school system was put on hold this year after the COVID-19 crisis battered the state’s economy.

The enrollment numbers are being presented earlier this year than usual, reflecting an interest in the pandemic’s impacts, and Johnston said officials still need to dig into the data to be able to discuss trends by community, grade or demographic group.

Board member Amanda Fernandez said she hoped a deeper dive will lead to “a more informed approach to how we might get kids back, and then in particular, how we address the specific learning loss that might be impacting the kids who might not be in the system right now.”

Breaking down the roughly 37,000-student decline, Education Secretary James Peyser said there was a “gap” of about 7,000 students after accounting for the typical attrition of about 3,000 students, the lower pre-K and kindergarten numbers and the transfers to home-school and private schools. He asked Johnston how concerned he was that those approximately 7,000 students are “just kind of missing, or they’re effectively truant or they’re not showing up at school even though they remain in their communities and should be enrolled.”

Johnston said the enrollment numbers do not consider truancy, and that students “who just aren’t participating in the remote model, for example,” would not be counted as among those who are no longer enrolled.

He said the state is “actually pretty capable of tracking students when they move from within our state,” with much of that tracking based on information from families and school districts.

“I would speculate that the volatility is students perhaps moving out of state or out of country as well, and just a lack of information to the school department because families’ lives are in flux right now,” Johnston said.

(Copyright (c) 2023 State House News Service.

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