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Education

Some Metro East School Districts Are Losing Students During The Pandemic

Some public school districts in the metro-east lost students this fall, and the coronavirus pandemic is likely to blame.
File Photo / Derik Holtmann
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Belleville News-Democrat
Some public school districts in the Metro East lost students this fall, and the coronavirus pandemic is likely to blame.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Some public school districts in the Metro East lost students this fall, and the coronavirus pandemic is likely to blame.

With 7,366 students this fall, Edwardsville Community Unit School District 7 is the largest district in the Metro East. After at least four years of very consistent enrollment levels, the district lost about 100 students this fall. For a district that size, Superintendent Jason Henderson said the decline was small, but that it could affect class sizes slightly.

Edwardsville 7 will have to plan its staffing levels around whether those students return next fall or not.

As a whole, Madison County school districts have had a declining enrollment since at least 2016. But between fall 2019 and fall 2020, enrollment went down by more than 850 students — more than the two years prior combined.

The Illinois State Board of Education said there isn’t statewide data available yet for fall 2020 enrollments.

Many of the larger districts in St. Clair County saw negligible declines. O’Fallon Township High School 203 even gained students, as it has for most of the last five years. Belleville Township High School 201 lost less than a tenth of a percent in enrollment, and Belle Valley 119 remained completely level.

In St. Clair County, both Belleville School District 118 and East St. Louis School District 189 had substantial enrollment decreases between 2019 and 2020, 2.92% and 3.65% respectively. A decrease that size, however, is well within line for trends over the last several years.

According to enrollment numbers from the Illinois Report Card, Belleville 118 has lost between 1.5% and 3% of students every year since 2017 while East St. Louis 189 has seen losses of between 3.5% and 5.6% annually during the same period.

Even within some districts that have historically had declining enrollments, the effects of COVID-19 are obvious.

“The drop in the current year is definitely tied to COVID-19, as specifically our Pre-K and Kindergarten enrollment numbers are far lower than in previous years,” said Sydney Stigge-Kaufman, director of strategic partnerships for East St. Louis 189.

In some instances, families might have waited to enroll their young children or turned to homeschooling or private schools, which have largely offered fully in-person learning. In others, enrollment declines during the pandemic can be pinned to a lack of access to technology.

Granite City Community Unit School District 9 has had a declining enrollment for two decades, Superintendent Stephanie Cann said. The city has lost residents, and many of those that remain are part of an aging population.

Ahead of winter break, the district was down about 130 students from last year, but Cann said that number has been closing throughout the semester.

In the spring, Granite City 9 did not have a computer or e-reader for every student, so remote learning had to be conducted through packets. While the district has stayed remote this whole semester, CARES Act funding helped secure more Chromebooks.

As the district distributed Chromebooks to all students, they saw the enrollment tick back up. The increase wasn’t always huge — maybe 20 students per grade — but they added up, Cann said.

“I didn’t expect a big rise. I’m actually pleasantly surprised,” she said. “ … It’s really made a difference for enrollment, especially in the younger grades.”

While a temporary drop in enrollment might have left those districts shortchanged under an old Illinois school funding formula, a new formula implemented in 2017 isn’t as hinged on fluctuations in student population.

“You would really be looking at that enrollment and attendance every day (with the old formula),” Henderson said. “The new funding kind of wiped that off. They’ve got a ‘hold harmless’, which means that even as attendance drops, they’re not going to lose funding because of that.”

In some states, like Colorado, funding is more directly tied to enrollment. Falling enrollments because of COVID-19 could mean the potential loss of millions of dollars, the Denver Post reported.

Megan Valley is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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