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Some districts dipping into COVID relief funds to save jobs, programs

Student enrollment down in state’s largest school districts
Students
Posted at 2:06 PM, Sep 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-23 14:06:10-04

We caught up with 14-year-old Logan Drake-Minyard during his school day. Since last year, this 8th grader’s classroom is home.

“For me, it’s better. Now that I know the system pretty good. So I can make my own time and I have a lot of help,” he told us.

After spending months e-learning through the district, this summer, as COVID cases surged in Florida, Logan’s mom gave him the choice to go back to traditional public school or leave it all together for virtual.

For Logan, who is asthmatic, the virus made it an easy choice.

A lot of our family members also have medical issues. Diabetes, heart problems and so I’m really scared to get Covid and put my family at risk,” he said.

Logan Drake-Minyard, asthmatic, dropped out of face-to-face learning this year to protect himself and his family

Logan is one of thousands of Florida students who, this year, have dropped out of traditional public school.

In fact, early numbers suggest while smaller or mid-size school districts are starting to rebound or even increase its student enrollment year over year, the state’s largest districts are struggling to bring students back from alternative education choices including virtual, charter, and private schools.

“We all expected to go back to this school year in a more normal way and it didn’t happen,” said Andrew Spar who leads the state’s teachers union. He explains why enrollment matters to a district.

“School districts budget to make sure they have the resources for the children who show up, so if more children show up it creates a strain and if fewer children show up it creates a budgetary issue,” he said.

Orange County, where Orlando is located, is also home to the state’s fourth-largest school district. But since 2019, student enrollment in traditional public schools is down nearly 2%.

In Broward County, despite a population surge, there are more than ten thousand fewer students enrolled in the district’s public school system this year than before the pandemic began.

“We were a little surprised because here in Broward many people have already received the vaccine,” said Jill Young who leads the student enrollment office for the district.

Young blames COVID-19 fears especially since, she explains, their biggest loss is younger children between 5 and 12 years old who have largely been ineligible for the vaccine.

“I feel that a lot of parents have decided to make other arrangements because of that fear of their child not being safe due to not everybody being vaccinated,” Young said. She hopes opening up vaccines to younger children next month will help the district gain back many of its students who haven’t returned.

Young also said some of the district’s enrollment loss includes students the district can’t locate or are, literally, lost from the district’s system. This weekend district personnel including administrators and teachers will be going door-to-door looking for students who haven’t reported back to school this year or since the pandemic began.

“It’s concerning,” said Young.

Since fewer students mean less money, Broward has already dipped into federal Covid funds to keep from cutting programs and positions.

So has Palm Beach County where early numbers show it’s dealing with among the most severe enrollment slumps across the state. Since 2019, student enrollment in traditional public schools is down 6.5%.

During a recent budget hearing, the district’s budget chief explained how they are using federal Covid relief funds to save 200 positions. But the federal life preserver is a one-time opportunity and not ideal for districts to depend on to balance budgets.

“We’re going to continue to monitor enrollment and align our resources so we minimize our use of one-time funds,” explained district Chief Financial Officer Heather Frederick to the board.

It’s a problem these districts will be closely watching while students, including Logan Drake-Minyard, are settling into their new school routines. He’s open to returning to traditional public school but not fully convinced he will.

“If the pandemic was still going and I were going to a regular school it wouldn’t be helping get the pandemic out. I’m not as much at risk than someone actually at school,” he said.

Districts report final enrollment numbers to the state twice a year starting in October.

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