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In pandemic, Missouri educators look for ‘missing’ students

Since COVID-19 shut down schools, Missouri pre-K-12 enrollment has dropped by about 29,000 students — just over 3 percent. Now, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is working with schools “to gain a better understanding on if these students transitioned to homeschool, a private school or another public school out of state, or if, in fact, they are truly unaccounted for,” DESE Chief Communications Officer Mallory McGowin said.

Missouri’s public school enrollment had seen a slight decline since 2011, dropping about 0.14 percent annually on average, McGowin said. But across 33 states studied in a December analysis from Chalkbeat and The Associated Press, enrollment dropped by about 500,000 students from fall 2019 to fall 2020.

There aren’t any comprehensive, nationwide data yet available to see just how much the pandemic has impacted enrollment, but the administration of President Joe Biden recently announced the launching of a new survey to analyze data from 7,000 schools nationwide.

Efforts to locate, re-enroll students
In the Grandview School District, near Kansas City, some families “were scared and didn’t want to enroll anywhere,” Superintendent Kenny Rodrequez explained. For others, it was a matter of notifying the district of changes such as moving to a new school district or homeschooling. Some students, however, are still unaccounted for.

So the district began increasing its efforts to communicate with families and locate students. Staff members make calls, send emails and sometimes conduct home visits. So far, about 70 students have been located.

“We still believe they’re going to come back,” Rodrequez said. “We’re still getting enrollments every single day — a little bit here and a little bit there.”

While the enrollment loss spans across grade levels, preschool and kindergarten classrooms have seen some of the largest drops. In Missouri, preschool and kindergarten enrollment alone has dropped by about 14 percent this school year, according to data The Kansas City Beacon acquired from DESE.

That rings true for Kirsten Lipari-Braman, chief executive officer for Gordon Parks Elementary School, which saw the biggest enrollment gap in its preschool classrooms. Gordon Parks, a charter school, had a waitlist for preschool prior to COVID-19.

“You couldn’t get in, the seats filled up so fast,” Lipari-Braman said, “and with the pandemic, we were struggling to fill our seats.”

She believes fear of COVID-19 led to the enrollment drop.

“People are nervous,” Lipari-Braman said. “They’re still scared because a lot of our children in Kansas City are not raised by the traditional mom and dad. They’re raised by grandparents, they’re being taken care of by older family members.”

Because neither preschool nor kindergarten is compulsory in Missouri, some families may be opting out altogether.

Once Gordon Parks began offering in-person school again in August, enrollment picked up, and each classroom is now at capacity, Lipari-Braman said.

Loss of preschool affects students
With COVID-19 contributing to sharp declines in preschool and kindergarten enrollment, young children could be missing out on critical developmental opportunities.

“This pandemic literally brought big cracks we already had in this very volatile system … and it brought all that to the surface,” said Polly Prendergast, senior director at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Berkley Child and Family Development Center. “And now we’re kind of in a crisis.”

She emphasized the importance of children learning in person, especially at the preschool level.

“When children are in school and around trained professionals … I think children have healthier and better outcomes,” she said.

Schools often provide structure and resources — such as food, shelter and clothing — that some families don’t have other access to.

“Not that I don’t have compassion for teachers — of course I do,” Prendergast said. “But we have to figure out a way to have children back in school, particularly in the early years.”

According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, most of the brain’s growth occurs in the early years, and the quality of that development provides either a strong or weak foundation for a child’s learning.

Prendergast explained that 90 percent of the brain is developed in the first five years of life.

“That is a huge marker for why we need to be taking the early childhood years and early childhood development much more seriously,” she said.

In Missouri, unless a family qualifies for Head Start or the Missouri Child Care Subsidy Program, they have to pay for early childhood education out of pocket. Child care costs in Jackson County for preschool-age students can range anywhere from $12.18 to $23.78 for a full day. That cost means some families don’t have access to early childhood education at all.

Prendergast explained early childhood education is expensive because it does not receive as much state and local funding as K-12 programs do. She said the high cost contributes to under-enrollment and teacher shortages.

Solutions to low enrollment
Parent groups, city council members and education leaders across the country are scrambling to try to mitigate the problems caused by the sudden drop in enrollment.

At an elementary school in New York City, the loss of 73 students could force the school to return nearly $300,000 in funding, according to The Wall Street Journal. Parents and City Council members have urged the Department of Education to suspend the amount owed and have requested amnesty from Mayor Bill de Blasio. Parents worry the funding loss would have detrimental long-term effects for their children.

Schools in Texas worry about losing funding if the state doesn’t uphold Hold Harmless, a policy meant to prevent districts from being penalized for low enrollment numbers during the pandemic. According to Texas Standard, an education coalition in San Antonio is urging Gov. Greg Abbott to extend Hold Harmless. A local nonprofit is trying to locate students by reaching out to families via phone calls, text messages, emails and home visits.

Meanwhile in Kansas City, an array of education leaders have united to tackle some of the most urgent enrollment-related needs in the region’s schools.

Read the full article by Jamie Hobbs in The Missouri Independent

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