DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- More than 70,000 fewer students are attending public schools across the state, according to the latest data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI).
Data from the first month of the 2020-2021 semester shows a 5% decline in average daily membership in public school districts from the previous school year. Preliminary data released Monday for the second month reveal the decline is slightly less at 4%.
Average daily membership, or ADM, is calculated by the state to represent the total number of days students are in attendance over the course of the month. During normal school years, ADM is used to determine funding for districts and a decrease would lead to significant budget cuts for districts. Earlier this year, however, North Carolina lawmakers passed a bill that will hold districts harmless to declines this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the average decline is 5%, many districts are feeling the impacts even more. Guilford County Schools and Weldon City Schools both reported a 16% decline in students during the first month.
"I think as we look at this school year, we knew it was going to be different. We know that schools and districts are trying to do so much in different ways and we know that families have to make decisions based on their own work schedules, based on what flexibility they have and all kinds of things so the 5% decline is significant but it was also probably in some way expected," said Mary Ann Wolf, the president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina.
The largest school district, Wake County, reported a 2% decline in the first month and a 3% decrease based on preliminary second month data. Durham and Cumberland County schools are at the state average with a 5% decline.
"It's absolutely a concern. It's understandable though. These are unusual times to say the least and a lot of our decline in enrollment came from kindergarten students who are not legally required to come to school in your kindergarten year, it's not a state requirement," said Durham Public Schools spokesperson Chip Sudderth.
First month data shows there are about 13% fewer kindergartners enrolled across the state this year than the 2019-2020 school year.
State educators don't know exactly where students are opting to attend instead of public school. Sudderth predicted many families are choosing homeschooling this year.
"Families who do online learning with us, they don't have to go it alone, we do have great teachers who are providing these resources for families but even with the hotspots and the Chromebooks that we're providing, remote learning can be a challenge for some families, so it's understandable that some would try to make it happen for themselves," Sudderth said.
While almost every public school district reported a decline, many charter schools and private academies saw an increase in enrollment.
Enrollment in public schooling options has been declining for years. State data shows the number of students homeschooled has doubled and charter school enrollment has quadrupled between 2007 and 2019. During the same time period, the number of K-12 students enrolled in public schools declined by 8.2%.
Although districts are not getting penalized financially this year due to the drop in ADM, Sudderth said lower enrollment is still a concern for districts.
"The decrease in enrollment presents challenges for all of schools even when funding is not an issue, we are still looking at if a teacher leaves, if we have a vacancy, will we be able to fill that vacancy or will we need to wait and see what happens next year? So, we still have to be very, very careful with our resources and also COVID-19 is expensive," Sudderth said.
Wolf also shared a concern that even if attendance numbers bounce back, institutions will continue to face funding challenges.
"I think as we look forward and make the assumption that many of the students will come back, that alone does not address the funding challenges I think we are likely to experience in our schools," she said.
If fewer students enroll than expected next year, districts may lose money that could impact funding for teachers and learning programs.
Many districts are already feeling the strain of having to provide virtual learning devices while equipping their buildings with safety measures to keep students safe once they return to the classrooms.
"I think as we look ahead we're going to have to look a real deep look at what it takes to cost to educate as a state," Wolf said.
Statewide, educators are continuing to work to get the students who are enrolled to participate and engage remotely.
Wolf said keeping students engaged is a major concern shared across the state as virtual learning drags into another semester.
"There are still students they are worried about because their families may not be responding, they may not be responding, it's sometimes hard to know if some of our students have moved," she explained.
At DPS, Sudderth explained teachers are working to engage students in different ways, even when they are not doing in-person learning. He also adds that social workers and school counselors are assisting in these efforts.
Sudderth said the district is planning on having an enrollment campaign in the near future to hopefully regain some of the students.
"Higher enrollment is important for us to be able to fund all the programs we want to fund but higher enrollment is important for the kids' sake. We think that we are the best option for students and it is important to us that families come back to us and we'll fight to bring them back," he said.