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Education

Record Drop In Student Enrollment Gives Teachers Breathing Room But Adds Worries About Missing Students

COVID Classroom Courtesy Lizzie Anderson.jpeg
Courtesy Lizzie Anderson
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High school Spanish teacher Lizzie Anderson has about 200 kids total his year, which is down from previous years. That's given her more time to focus on the students she has, but it she's worried about the students who aren't there.

A lot has changed in Lizzie Anderson’s classes this year. She teaches spanish at Hunter High School in West Valley City. and about a third of her students are online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anderson teaches them alongside her in-person students, which can create some confusion. During a recent class, as Anderson was collecting assignments for her online kids, some of her in-person students were getting antsy to leave.

We can leave when we’re done?” a student in the classroom asked.

“No, I'm talking to the person on zoom,” Anderson said. “You’ve still got 15 minutes here with me.”

She said that kind of back-and-forth has made teaching this year pretty hard, but there is one thing that’s made her job slightly easier. She has fewer students than in previous years — about 200 total across multiple periods.

“This has been the first year where I have only had to prepare for two classes,” she said. “I mean it's still nuts because of the pandemic.”

She said in a normal year, she’s often asked to take on extra courses because there aren’t enough teachers at her school. With smaller classes this year, students are participating more and there is more time in class for longer, in-depth discussions. Anderson said she has also had more time to work with students individually, going over papers.

“It's nice to be able to sit down with them and really just look on a deeper level at the writing that they maybe wouldn't get in in other years,” she said.

Where Have All The Students Gone?

Enrollment Drop Utah Legislature Budget 2021.jpg
Courtesy Utah Legislative Fiscal Analyst
The last time student enrollment dropped in Utah was between 1998-2000.

It’s a glimpse into a world where class sizes are smaller and a little more manageable. Still, it’s hard to celebrate the change considering what’s behind it. Utah saw a .23% drop in enrollment this year — which hasn’t happened in 20 years.

In the Granite School District where Anderson teaches, student enrollment is down 3% compared to last year — more than 2,000 students.

Ben Horsley, Granite’s communications director, said at the start of the school year, students were shuffling around like never before. Some left public districts for charter or private schools, some were homeschooled. Others just disappeared.

“Some of those have returned back to a different country in some instances,” he said. “Some are staying home and hunkering down and not responding.”

The 3% enrollment decline is a net loss, Horsley said, because it also includes about 800 new students the district gained as a result of the pandemic.

Heather Hayes, for example, enrolled her four kids in Granite schools as soon as she saw Salt Lake City was starting the year fully online.

“I didn't want to be there to see what would happen,” Hayes said. “I just thought, you know, we had a bad experience in the spring, I think most people did.”

She was able to switch schools because of Utah’s open enrollment policy. It allows parents to apply for schools outside their neighborhood boundaries. Hayes said it was a tough choice, though. Since her kids had always gone to Salt Lake schools, all their friends were there, and leaving was hard on them.

Caroline Hayes.jpeg
Courtesy Heather Hayes
Heather Hayes' daughter Caroline works on homework at home. She normally goes to school in the Salt Lake City School District, but transferred this year to Granite.

“Especially my high schoolers,” she said. “I mean you don’t want to be moving schools in high school, especially in a mask, it’s really hard to meet people and be the new kid.”

Her oldest son, a junior in high school, has since returned to his home district. Hayes said, though, she’s not sure yet if her other kids will do the same.

She said they’ve all been doing well academically. But that hasn’t been the case for everyone.

Long-term Academic Consequences Loom Large For Missing Students

Anderson said she worries about some of the students at her school, whether they’re taking classes online or never even registered.

“I would bet you anywhere from 10-15% of our sophomores and juniors are going to be missing an entire years' worth of credits,” she said.

She said one of her students who is registered for online classes usually has to help his brother who has special needs, and she suspects it’s now become a full-time job. He hasn’t shown up all year.

“He's a junior and he is super off track to graduate,” she said. “As much as that pains me, I'm one person and there's only so much I can do on top of my normal teaching responsibilities.”

Even thorough graduation rates in the state have been going up, Anderson worries they’ll fall significantly this year. That, she said, could have ripple effects over the next decade.

Addressing learning loss over the coming year will be a major focus for Utah schools. They’re getting just over $274 million from the second round of federal COVID relief. State lawmakers have directed districts to put most of it towards things like summer school programs or targeted learning plans for students at risk of failing.

As for the enrollment shuffling, the state’s board of education said it could be up to three years before students settle back into their pre-pandemic schools.

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