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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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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Lost enrollment costs schools

Indiana school districts stand to lose over $100 million in state funding this year because of reduced enrollment attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fall 2020 enrollment in traditional public schools declined by 17,300 students, according to data released last week by the Indiana Department of Education. Each of those students translates to over $6,200 in lost funding from the state.

It’s not yet clear what happened or where the students went. Some families may have opted to homeschool their children rather than send them to school during the pandemic. Some may have switched to private or charter schools.

A significant factor could be families with young children choosing to delay or skip kindergarten. Indiana does not require kindergarten attendance, and children are not required to start school until the academic year when they turn 7.

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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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Lower-income parents worry about learning loss

Lower-income parents are more than twice as likely as upper-income parents to be “very concerned” that their children are falling behind from missing school during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

The survey confirms that lower-income parents value their children’s education as much as anyone. And they are right to be concerned. Even if schools can reopen in the fall, most students will be away from the classroom for nearly half a year. As a New York Times editorial argues, this could have catastrophic effects.

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