Mississippi’s Department of Education announced recently that enrollment in the state’s public schools has dropped by 5% this year.

That’s troubling, but not surprising, as the pandemic and the mixed-bag approach that the public schools have used in dealing with it have caused thousands of families to seek other alternatives for their children’s education – or, in probably some cases, a total abandonment of it.

MDE said the 23,000-student drop can largely be attributed to the following:

• More than 4,300 fewer students in kindergarten. Mississippi’s mandatory school attendance law does not kick in until first grade, so it’s not surprising that parents have decided there is no point in sending their child to school before they have to, particularly in those school districts that have been doing most or all of their classes remotely. Distance learning may work for older students, but it’s a particularly poor alternative for young children, especially those who may be going to school for the first time.

• A nearly 7,000-student increase in home schooling. The virtual learning that began last spring when the coronavirus first arrived was quasi-home schooling already, with much of the responsibility for teaching children being transferred to the parents. It may have given some families the confidence to handle home schooling, particularly if any of the parents lost their jobs or were working from home themselves.

• A continuation of the pre-pandemic downward trend in enrollment, probably tied to Mississippi’s stagnant population. It should be pointed out, though, that this year’s drop is more than four times what the state had averaged over the previous three years. MDE’s summation seems reasonably on point, but it also left some questions unanswered. Among them:

• How did enrollment compare among those school districts that started back in the fall with in-person instruction and those that didn’t? One would suspect that the drops were larger where in- person instruction was abandoned, as in the Greenwood Leflore Consolidated School District. That school district reported an enrollment drop of nearly 12%, more than twice the state average. But nearby Carroll County, which tried in-person instruction for much of the semester until back-to- back outbreaks caused it to eventually send all children home, saw a drop (9.5%) that was nearly as large as Greenwood Leflore’s. It would be helpful to know which is more responsible for the enrollment decline, fear of catching the virus at school or frustration with virtual learning from home.

• How many students did the public schools lose to the private schools? The MDE report did not quantify this. In general, private schools have been more willing to go with in-person instruction and continue with sports and other extracurriculars. Anecdotally these seem to have prompted a higher than normal number of transfers from public to private schools. Does the hard data back that perception up?

• How many students are enrolled in name only? One problem with virtual learning is that some students may be technically registered at their school, but they aren’t logging in or doing the work.

The schools have been dealt a terribly difficult situation by the pandemic. They know it’s safest to keep kids at home, but they also know that learning works best if students are in a physical classroom with their teachers and peers. There seems to be no way to satisfactorily reconcile those opposing concerns. This year’s enrollment numbers are further evidence of the ongoing dilemma.

Greenwood Commonwealth

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