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.

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We know just enough history to get it wrong

The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom were key episodes in the struggle to win equal rights for all Americans. It hurts to see them used for purposes that seem antithetical to the civil rights movement.

Last week, the Bloomington Herald-Times reported on one of the many fights that have erupted over whether students should wear face coverings to limit the spread of COVID-19. A father told the reporter that he and his fifth-grade daughter were inspired by Rosa Parks to reject wearing masks.

Rosa Parks. (U.S. Courts image)

“On Sunday night, she wanted me to talk to me about Rosa Parks and if that was true that Rosa Parks really just stopped doing something and everyone changed,” he told a reporter. “And I said absolutely it’s true.”

Maybe we should be encouraged that a 10-year-old in a rural school district that’s 95% white would be inspired by the actions of a Black seamstress 65 years ago. The problem is, we’ve learned a mostly false story about Rosa Parks. She wasn’t a simple seamstress who refused to give up her seat on a bus because she was tired. She was a quiet but committed activist who served as secretary of the Montgomery NAACP and traveled to the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee for interracial activism training, a radical act at that time.

Letting her arrest be used to challenge segregation was an act of profound courage. “The white folks will kill you, Rosa,” her husband told her. He no doubt meant it literally, and with good reason.

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Tests show COVID impact

Data from the Indiana Department of Education hint at how badly the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted student learning, especially for students of color and students from low-income families.

Students who attended school remotely last year because of the pandemic had lower scores and less improvement on standardized tests than students whose primary mode of instruction was in-person, according to a presentation at Wednesday’s State Board of Education meeting.

“In really simple terms, in-person instruction really, really, really matters,” Secretary of Education Katie Jenner told the board. “What our teachers do in the classroom, face to face, really matters.”

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Pandemic reduced kindergarten enrollment

The COVID-19 pandemic produced “a vast exodus from local public schools,” and kindergartners in low-income communities accounted for a disproportionate share of children who didn’t enroll a year ago, according to a New York Times analysis.

Data from Indiana suggest something similar happened here. Enrollment in Indiana public school districts declined by just over 2% in fall 2020 from the previous year, but the number of students in kindergarten fell by about 8%.

The Times analysis – and Stanford University research, reported by Chalkbeat – tied much of the decrease to schools shifting to online learning to protect students and staff from COVID-19. The Stanford study found online learning alone reduced kindergarten enrollment by 3% to 4%.

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Vaccine refusal has consequences

Not surprised but disappointed. That’s my reaction to the news that we probably won’t reach “herd immunity” for COVID-19 anytime soon. And that we may never reach it.

For much of the past year, experts were saying we could reach herd immunity, the stage where the virus stops actively spreading, when 70% or so of the population was vaccinated or immune from having had the infection. We hoped schools could return to normal by this fall, after a year and a half of disruptions.

As Shari Rudavsky writes in the Indy Star, herd immunity was the Holy Grail, the prize that would let life get back to routine. Now it seems to be out of reach. Health officials no longer promote the idea.

What happened? One factor was the rise of more contagious variants of the coronavirus that causes the disease. That meant more vaccinations would be needed to reach herd immunity. But another factor, and the one that’s truly disappointing, is that many Americans refuse to get vaccinated.

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Where did all the students go?

Chalkbeat Indiana reported that enrollment dropped by almost 15,000 students this fall in Indiana public schools. I wrote that the loss to school districts was over 17,000 students. It gets worse. Judging by recent state data, enrollment in local public schools fell by over 24,000 students.

Where did they go? Several thousand moved to online schools, either virtual charter schools or online programs operated by other school districts. Some families apparently opted out of enrolling their 5-year-olds in kindergarten. A majority of the missing students are probably home-schooling.

In terms of state funding, the loss of 24,000 students translates to a loss of nearly $150 million for public schools in the 2020-21 school year. It’s almost as much money as the schools lose to Indiana’s voucher program, which provides tuition funding for students who attend private schools.

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Grateful for in-person school

This post was first published Sept. 26 as a guest column in the Bloomington, Indiana, Herald-Times.

Given the choice of having fully online schooling, 70% of families in the Monroe County Community School Corp. have opted instead to send their children to school in person. This shouldn’t be surprising.

Enrolling your child in the local public school has always been an act of profound trust. Families trust schools to keep their children safe from accidents, bullies, shootings and threats they haven’t imagined. They trust schools to build character and have a positive influence on behavior. Fundamentally, they trust schools and teachers to understand what students need to know and to make sure they learn it.

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Schools may lose funding over virtual start

It’s entirely possible that Indiana schools will lose millions of dollars in state funding if they aren’t opening their doors to in-person instruction this fall.

Sen. Rod Bray, R-Martinsville, the Senate president pro tem, raised the issue in a letter last week to school officials, pointing out that state law says online classes qualify for only 85% of normal funding.

Gov. Eric Holcomb and several legislative leaders indicated in June that the funding restriction would be lifted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bray said there is “a strong appetite” in the legislature for making that change for schools that offer online learning as an option.

“However, there is no guarantee such an exception will be made for schools that don’t give families the option of in-person instruction in a school building,” he wrote. “Therefore, schools that don’t offer in-person instruction should plan on operating under the current funding policy.”

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Indiana charter, private schools get Paycheck Protection funds

Indiana charter schools were awarded between $15 million and $38 million in Paycheck Protection Program funding intended to help small businesses and nonprofits during the economic downturn, according to  Small Business Administration data.

That is in addition to funding under a section of the CARES Act intended to help public schools; Indiana charter schools got $20.5 million in that funding.

The PPP figure is a conservative estimate. It doesn’t include schools that may have received less than $150,000, which were not identified by the SBA.

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Much is at stake in school reopening

It’s hard to imagine a worse dilemma than the one school boards and administrators are facing: how to reopen schools in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Emotions are running high, and opinions are polarized. Officials want to make decisions based on data, but the data keep changing, with infections rising in much of the country, including Indiana.

There’s a lot at stake, and the decision-makers deserve our patience and respect. I hope most schools can reopen with both full-time, face-to-face instruction and an online alternative for people who choose it. But for some, it won’t happen.

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