As a sixth-grade math teacher last year, Jennifer Anderson had 125 students. This year, she has just one: her son, Felix. 

Concerns over her family’s health and safety and the level of community transmission of COVID-19 led Anderson to leave her job and homeschool Felix, who is in fifth grade. 

Recognizing that her teaching experience and her family’s finances put them in a privileged position this year, she made the decision based on what she felt was best for her family and her community. 

But it’s temporary. 

“I’m very hopeful that vaccine distribution will go smoothly over the next six months and we’ll see our community transmission drop to a much safer level…and I hope to enroll him for sixth grade,” Anderson said. “I really do believe deeply in public schools.”

Like Anderson, many parents across the state chose a different way to educate their children this year — delivering seismic shifts in school enrollment. And because schools are funded per student, the financial impact could persist well into next year and beyond. 

New data released Wednesday by the state Department of Education sheds light on the state’s public school enrollment trends. Here are five takeaways from the 2020-21 report. 

Enrollment Decreased by 9,500 Students

The total number of public school students in Oklahoma is 694,113 — a decline of 1.4% from 2019-20. It’s the first decrease in 19 years, according to the Education Department.

Public school enrollment topped 700,000 students for the first time last year. Enrollment now is on par with 2016-17. 

Students who left could be homeschooling or attending a private school. But some are just missing and may have disengaged from education altogether, according to multiple news reports, including USA Today

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Enrollment in Virtual Charter Schools Exploded

Epic Charter Schools, the state’s largest virtual charter, doubled its student count from just over 28,000 last year to 59,445 across its two school models. Epic’s future is uncertain following a move from one of its authorizers to cancel its contract based on an investigative audit.

Enrollment gains of 33% to 60% were experienced by other statewide virtual schools, including Insight School of Oklahoma, Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy and Oklahoma Connections Academy. eSchool Virtual Charter Academy, based in Guthrie, grew from 44 students to nearly 1,000.

In all, about 67,000 students were enrolled in a virtual charter school, or just under 10% of all state public school students. 

Most Traditional Districts and Charters Experienced Declines 

Of the state’s 528 public school districts and charter schools, more than 400 experienced a drop in enrollment compared to last year. Enrollment in Oklahoma City and Tulsa Public Schools was down by 5,169 and 2,744 students, respectively. 

Of the largest dozen districts, Midwest City-Del City experienced the steepest percent decline: more than 3,000 left the district this year, representing 22% of its student body. 

Superintendent Rick Cobb said the district was staffed to support 14,000 students, because that’s how enrolled last year. He expects to recover some of those students next year. 

“It’s a tough season for us to be in,” Cobb said. “Teachers are trying to teach class and it’s harder than it’s ever been. But we’re also trying to prepare for a gigantic budget collapse that our teachers aren’t even feeling yet.”  

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The Biggest Decline Was Among the Youngest Students

Seventy-five percent of the decline was in pre-K and kindergarten. There were 4,734 fewer pre-K students and 2,381 fewer kindergarteners attending this year. 

Parents with young learners were likely to oppose having little ones attending Zoom classes or virtual learning programs. If in-person school was an option, mask wearing and social distancing is particularly challenging for the youngest students. 

The impact could be significant. Studies show students who attend pre-K are more prepared for kindergarten, have better attendance, fewer behavior problems and are more likely to be reading at grade level by 4th grade. In a normal year, three out of four Oklahoma 4-year-olds attend at least half-day, according to the state Education Department.

Pre-K attendance is optional. Kindergarten is mandatory but state law allows parents to delay until a child is 6.

Fewer Students Equals Fewer Dollars to Spend

Unstable student enrollment is just one of several significant influences on Oklahoma school funding due to the pandemic; schools are also dealing with additional, unforseen costs and uncertain local tax revenue. 

Many administrators are bracing for a reduction in their funding at midterm, which occurs this month, due to the growth of virtual charter schools. Charter schools don’t receive local tax dollars so the state kicks in a larger proportion; that gives enrollment growth among virtual charter an outsized impact on state coffers. 

And it’s hard on traditional school districts.

“A school that has a reduction in students or has the same number of students hasn’t been able to reduce the cost because they still have those teachers under contract,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. “All of the cost that they had coming into the school year is still there.”

Pandemic relief from the federal government will help. Oklahoma schools have been allocated $665 million under the second round of COVID relief funds from the federal government, the U.S Department of Education announced Tuesday. That’s in addition to the $145 million the state received for schools in May. 

Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or jpalmer@oklahomawatch.org. Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC

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