More than 900 fewer students than projected enrolled in the Albemarle County school division for this academic year, according to numbers from the first two days of school.
Officials had expected enrollment to drop and compared the enrollment from Wednesday with what they projected, as well as with the number of students enrolled as of Sept. 30, 2019. Using that latter metric, 717 fewer students enrolled while 921 fewer students enrolled than projected.
The decrease is mainly felt at the elementary level and is not equally distributed among the schools. About 338 more students than last year opted to homeschool this year but officials don’t have data on where the other students went.
“Due to current circumstances, some of this is not to be unexpected but, obviously, these two declines are of concern and will present challenges that present immediate financial challenges, but also challenges in planning and budgeting for next year and what assumptions we will make as far as who and when these students will return,” said Rosalyn Schmitt, chief operations officer for the division.
Schmitt said the enrollment drop could be a combination of parents homeschooling, students going to private school or families moving away.
The biggest drop was at the kindergarten level, where 200 fewer students than expected enrolled. Sixth-grade enrollment was down by about 100 students.
At the county School Board’s meeting Thursday, board member Katrina Callsen said the kindergarten numbers could be indicative of where virtual learning is less effective.
“I think it’s just because that’s where virtual learning is very difficult, and I think we should keep that in mind as we start figuring out which kids are going to be going into school next,” she said. “There’s a reason why parents are not doing virtual learning.”
Officials didn’t discuss specific budget numbers as far as how much the enrollment drop will affect next year’s spending plan. State funding is contingent on the division’s average daily attendance.
In May, the School Board adopted a $193.7 million budget after making several cuts in response to a drop in local revenues because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The division receives about $3,000 per student from the state.
Jackson Zimmerman, the division’s school finance officer, said the division’s fund balance is better than they expected, which will help. However, the operational expenses related to virtual learning are unknown.
Costs associated with the pandemic, such as purchasing technology and personal protective equipment, are more than $2 million and have exceeded the allotted federal CARES Act money, he said.
“It did add up during this time period,” Zimmerman said.
The School Board will start the budget development process for the next fiscal year later this month with a work session on capital projects.
Because of declining enrollment and budget reductions, the division hired about 60 fewer teachers compared with last school year. Of the 124 new hires, about 20 — or 16% — are teachers of color, according to preliminary hiring data presented at the board meeting.
Callsen said the division’s slow progress on increasing the diversity among teachers is problematic for her.
About 11% of the division’s candidate pool were candidates of color. The division has set a goal to hire 25 minority teachers each year. To improve the diversity of the teaching workforce, human resources staff rewrote the job description for teaching positions, hosted a job fair and continued to build relationships with historically Black colleges and universities.
Daphne Keiser, director of educator quality for the division, said the new hire demographics compared with the overall candidate pool showed that administrators were drilling down further into the pool.
“We believe this is attributed to administrators’ emphasis on increasing diversity within the teaching workforce to better align with student demographics,” she said.
More comprehensive data of this year’s hiring, as well as the overall division staff, will be presented at a later board meeting.
Thursday’s meeting was the first of the school year. Superintendent Matt Haas and School Board members thanked division staff for their work in setting up virtual school.
“And now that we’re up and running, we will keep getting better,” Haas said. “While not everyone is satisfied, I’ve heard super positive feedback from students, families and staff. Like I said, we can always improve, but it was a great start.”
There was more discussion among board members who wanted more information about technology needs and how the division plans to hear from parents and students about virtual learning.
During public comment, two teachers continued to raise concerns about the elementary schedule for virtual learning and the sustainability of the workload.
“This week has felt like I am hosting and producing a live daily telethon,” said Amy Gaertner, president of the Albemarle Education Association and a teacher at Broadus Wood Elementary. “I am up in the morning finalizing my Seesaw slides, and I am emailing parents back to address their questions and concerns.”
Gaertner said she did not feel prepared to effectively teach in the virtual setting.
“I am troubleshooting and responding in real time for a majority of the school day,” she said. “… I am told there is more planning time in this schedule, but Friday is not here yet. We are having to create, find, link, upload and learn all at the same time. I have not started planning what I will be teaching next week.”
Gaertner’s concerns were echoed by Cheryl Knight, a teacher at Murray Elementary.
“I have struggled through the first three days of live teaching on Zoom and trying to figure out how to meet the needs of the students that I serve,” Knight said.
“I have been overwhelmed. I have spoken to many elementary teachers who are feeling discouraged and just dog-tired from these first few days. … I realize that this is the beginning of the year and some of that is to be expected. Please ask for the teachers’ feedback. Right now, most of us are too tired to sign up for public comment and put our thoughts on paper.”
As part of the division’s staged reopening plan, Haas will recommend a stage for the second quarter in a few weeks. The division currently is in Stage Two, meaning that most students are taking online classes. The division has outlined several factors, including the current COVID-19 conditions in the county and region, to determine whether to progress to the next stage.
However, officials haven’t publicly attached any metrics to those factors, which was criticized during Thursday’s public comment period.
So we all know we’re at Stage Two, which is all virtual learning, and our goal is Stage Five in-person learning,” said Patricia McDonald, a community member. “But the community doesn’t know how or when we can get there because there have been no health criteria or standards set for each stage. The community has no idea how close or far we are from Stage Five. The lack of clear published health criteria for each stage increases uncertainty in the community.”
As of Monday, the county’s test positivity rate has stayed steady at 6.4% while the case incidence rate was at 7.8 per 100,000. In Charlottesville, the incidence rate was 32 per 100,000 though the positivity rate was 6.4%, a drop from last week’s 9.7%.
Those numbers come from a Virginia Department of Health dashboard, which is not publicly available. A VDH spokeswoman said last month that the department does not intend to make the dashboard public.
The drop of 717 students from Sept. 30, 2019, is mainly felt at the elementary level and is not equally distributed among the schools.