Pandemic accelerates enrollment declines at many school districts

With six children to care for — including a 4-year-old and 2-year-old who have autism

With six children to care for — including a 4-year-old and 2-year-old who have autism — Maggie Tamayo has given up on distance learning.

For the Chula Vista mom, distance learning meant sitting next to her first- and second-graders to make sure they paid attention to online class while also keeping her 4-year-old and 2-year-old sons from climbing onto the table.

She worried about what all the screen time and the lack of social interaction would do to her children, and she was anxious about whether she was doing what’s best for them, keeping them learning at home.

Tamayo ended up pulling out her three school-age children from the Chula Vista Elementary School District to home school them herself.

Distance learning “is not very accommodating for a family like ours,” she said.

Tamayo is one of thousands of parents who are leaving San Diego-area school districts for other options, in this case home schooling. Many parents said they are tired of distance learning and worry that their children aren’t learning.

Some left for private schools that opened for in-person learning early in the school year, after school districts said they won’t reopen for weeks or months.

Thousands left for online charter schools that have years of experience in personalizing online education, independent study and home schooling. Some San Diego charter schools say they have hundreds of students on waiting lists.

For many districts the pandemic is accelerating what already was a years-long trend of enrollment declines fueled by an aging populace and growing competition from other schools.

In California, where funding is supposed to follow the student, school revenue depends on the number of students attending. This year, though, public schools are protected from losing state funding despite enrollment declines. Next year that protection is set to expire.

Charter school advocates say student movement and competition aren’t bad.

“Frankly, this was and still is an opportunity for traditional schools … to really question their overall operations, and if they really want students to stay, how can they be more innovative and how can they really adapt to what parents say their children need,” said Cameron Curry, CEO of Classical Academies, a North County charter school network whose enrollment is up by 1,200 students, with another 1,100 on a wait list.

Losing young kids

Official statewide enrollment numbers won’t be posted until March, but preliminary reports show several local districts — though not all — are seeing more students leave than normal, particularly among kindergarten students.

Kindergarten is optional in California.

San Diego Unified recently said it’s down 2,474 students from pre-pandemic enrollment projections. The biggest drop was in kindergarten.

“My message to our community is if you’ve got a 5-year-old out but they’re not learning … we need to get them online and get them learning,” said Cindy Marten, superintendent of 100,348-student district.

Several parents said online learning is not meant for young children, who typically learn how to interact with other people at school.

That’s what Chula Vista mom Monique Blue was hoping for her 4-year-old preschooler. Her daughter has autism and has been unable to sit and pay attention to online classes and therapy from the Chula Vista Elementary School District, Blue said.

“The whole point of getting her into preschool, at least for us, was so that she could start getting ready to go into a classroom-type environment,” Blue said.

She is trying to “hang in there” until Chula Vista opens for in-person learning on Oct. 26, but she said she has considered pulling her daughter out for some time.

“Honestly, I feel like she’s learning more from her daycare and her cartoons at this point,” Blue said.

Chula Vista Elementary, which has roughly 22,000 students, is down by 590 students from a year ago and down 1,000 from the start of the pandemic, according to the district. That’s a sharp downturn from last year, when the district gained about 80 students.

School social workers and other staff are trying to learn where those students went, said Superintendent Francisco Escobedo; they’ve phoned, sent mail and visited homes. Despite those efforts, the district can’t locate about 300 students.

Escobedo speculates that some parents lost jobs due to the pandemic and went elsewhere to look for work or less-expensive housing, which is possible with Tijuana just five minutes away.

Escobedo also suspected some families left for private schools or home school.

“We’ll come back when it’s safe. I think we’ve done a great job with distance learning,” Escobedo said. “Hopefully when we decide to come back in person, we’ll be able to attract those students that we lost.”

Poway Unified, which had rising or steady enrollment for the past decade, saw a loss of 373 students or about 1 percent. The biggest grade-level drop was in kindergarten.

Spokeswoman Christine Paik said the district likely avoided bigger enrollment losses by offering other options when schools closed for the pandemic, such as the district’s home school program.

“We went from three dozen families to nearly 1,000 choosing to home school. We don’t know for sure why the other families disenrolled,” Paik said.

San Marcos Unified also saw rising enrollments over much of the past decade, but this year, enrollment is down about 3 percent.

Carlsbad Unified also had annual enrollment increases in recent years, but this year enrollment dropped by about 4 percent, Superintendent Ben Churchill said, mostly from grades K-3.

“We do believe that many kindergarten families are simply delaying enrollment this year,” Churchill said, adding he has heard of some families moving out of state.

Del Mar Union hit its expected enrollment mark because, early on, it planned to reopen as soon and fully as possible, said Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Jason Romero. It was one of the first districts to provide full-time on-campus instruction, he said, but it saw a slight decline in enrollment.

At Escondido Union School District enrollment fell more than 5 percent, more than twice the previous year’s decline. Now staff are trying to contact students who aren’t attending, said Assistant Superintendent for Business Services Michael Taylor.

Choosing private school

Second grade students study in their classroom at St. Columba Catholic School on Friday

Second grade students study in their classroom at St. Columba Catholic School on Friday

(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Some families have left district schools for private schools like St. Columba, a Catholic school of 180 students in Serra Mesa that reopened for in-person learning on Sept. 8.

The school has enrolled 30 more kids than it did last year, most from district public schools, said Principal John Amann. He said parents told him they had watched their kids fall behind with distance learning.

“They’re at home with their kids and they’re watching their kids struggle, and no parents want to see their kid struggle,” Amann said.

Some parents said their students were in Zoom classes of 30 to 40 kids, he said. St. Columba caps its in-person classes at 19 students, he said.

The school also offers families learning choices: five days a week in-person, three days a week in-person or full-time distance learning.

“What parents are seeing is this is a school that’s invested in their students, that’s willing to make the difficult and challenging decisions to be open, and there may be some parents who are thinking maybe their public school isn’t doing enough,” Amann said.

Amann acknowledged that his small, independent school has advantages over a large district like San Diego Unified when it comes to reopening.

Kindergarten teacher Elizabeth Stewart works with her students at St. Columba Catholic School on Friday.

Kindergarten teacher Elizabeth Stewart works with her students at St. Columba Catholic School on Friday.

(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

While school districts have to negotiate reopening plans with unions representing thousands of employees, Amann talked with his 12 teachers and worked out a plan.

Also district neighborhood schools are obligated to take in any students who live in their boundaries, but Amann can cap enrollment to keep class sizes small. And it’s easier to plan to bring back dozens of students, rather than tens of thousands.

The idea that families with means are able to transfer to private schools and get in-person learning sooner than families who can’t afford that has raised equity concerns among parents and advocates.

Amann disputes the idea that private schools are havens only for the rich.

St. Columba, for instance, is giving $100,000 in need-based financial aid to 40 percent of its students this year, compared to $30,000 for 25 percent of its students last year, he said. Many school parents lost jobs or became financially insecure because of the pandemic, Amann said.

St. Columba is not a wealthy school, Amann said. To pay for the financial aid, Amann has been asking St. Columba parishioners, other local parishes and outside foundations for donations.

While Amann recognizes that new families became interested in St. Columba because it reopened early, he doesn’t want families to enroll at his school just because it’s open then leave as soon as their old schools reopen.

“We’re trying to create an environment where, once you’re here, you don’t want to leave,” he said.

Day camp, home school

At their home in Chula Vista, Amelia, 6, and Esperanza, 8, work on their home school assignments.

At their home in Chula Vista, Amelia, 6, and Esperanza, 8, work on their home school assignments.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

For Tamayo, home schooling hasn’t been easy but she is making it work. She collects tips from other parents on home school group Facebook pages and buys her own curriculum materials.

Now that her kids aren’t tied to a distance learning schedule, she sends her first- and second-graders to an in-person day camp at a local charter school once a week. They hike, kayak, play games and learn English and Spanish.

Because it’s outside, they don’t have to wear masks, Tamayo said.

Home schooling gives her flexibility and control, she said, and she’s happy to see her kids active and interacting with other children.

If Chula Vista Elementary reopens schools this month, Tamayo says her children won’t return until they can do so without masks.

She doesn’t blame the district.

“I do understand the district is doing their best, and I am hopeful. Just like many teachers are saying, they just want to go back to normal, same as parents,” she said.

“It’s very unfortunate that our kids are kind of like the guinea pigs of all of this.”

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