Enrollment held steady in pandemic year

Indiana public schools saw their enrollment decline a year ago as families wrestled with the idea of sending their kids to school in a pandemic. But once students enrolled, most of them stayed put, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education.

Schools in Indiana count their students twice each academic year, once in September and again in February. In 2021, enrollment in public schools dropped by just 0.5% between fall and spring.

There was speculation that families would bail on public schools last year, either because of worries about COVID-19 or because of frustration as districts shifted among in-person, hybrid and remote learning. That doesn’t seem to have happened, according to the data.

Overall, 210 districts lost students between fall 2020 and spring 2021, but most didn’t lose many. Only a handful of districts lost more than 2%; most were small, rural districts that may not have offered students an online option.

Sixty-eight districts gained students. The big gainers were districts that ramped up virtual programs and made them available statewide. Clarksville Community Schools increased its enrollment by 28% between fall and spring, and Cloverdale Community Schools grew by 18%. But the shift to virtual schools didn’t have much overall impact. Discounting those districts, overall enrollment declined only 0.6%.

Union School Corp., with a large and established statewide virtual school program, lost 2% of its students between spring and fall. Two virtual charter schools, Insight School of Indiana and Indiana Connections Academy, also saw their enrollment decline.

Total charter school enrollment fell by 2% during the school year. Charter schools saw more variability than public school districts: Several saw their enrollment increase by more than 10% and some lost more than 10% of their students.

The question now is, what will happen this year? In fall 2020, schools were expecting the worst from COVID-19. Many districts, especially the larger ones, offered an online option. This year, districts seem committed to in-person learning, and fewer are offering an online alternative.

But the delta variant has hit schools hard, with thousands of students already testing positive and many more quarantined. School board meetings have turned into angry debates over face coverings. Indiana’s expanded voucher program may draw more students to private schools.

September 2021 enrollment, available later this year, may tell a different story.

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