These Utah school districts saw the biggest drops in enrollment this year. Here’s why.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jaden Jerez, 10, arrives for his first day of fifth grade at Canyon View Elementary on Monday, August 24, 2020. Traditional K-12 schools across the state saw sharp declines in enrollment this fall with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several school districts across the Wasatch Front have seen staggering declines in student enrollment this fall — with thousands of kids turning to home-schooling or transferring to online programs because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Provo School District had the largest drop, losing the equivalent population of nearly two high schools as more than 3,000 students left its classrooms. Both Granite and Davis districts, too, each had a dip of more than 2,000 compared to last year. And Salt Lake City School District followed closely behind with a decrease of 1,500.

While those four districts had the biggest exoduses, 19 others among the 41 public K-12 school districts in Utah also had downturns. And for the first time in two decades, there was an overall drop in student enrollment for the state.

“It’s obviously significant,” said Scott Jones, the state’s deputy superintendent of operations for schools, during a Tuesday meeting of the Utah Board of Education. “It’s happening this year and could continue into next. … There is just so much movement related to COVID.”

The dramatic changes have officials worried. While some students just shifted to other districts — with the highest gains in Tooele and Nebo — and some moved to charters, there was still a total decline of 1,552 kids from the official 2019 headcount. That’s a 0.23% dip, resulting in a student body of 665,306.

At the same time, the state had projected to gain more than 7,000 students for 2020 before the pandemic. So, considering that with the dip, it’s really a loss closer to 9,000.

And it has wide-ranging impacts on equity, too, with primarily white students leaving, for instance, and choosing to go elsewhere, such as private school.

The state conducts an enrollment count at the beginning of October each year. And the numbers are used to determine how much funding a district will get for the following year. Fewer students enrolled means less money and could also mean staff layoffs.

In Salt Lake City School District, board member Kristi Swett estimated that losing the 1,500 students there could lead to a surplus of 55 teachers. No employee reductions are currently anticipated. But it’s not off the table.

“We can’t just sit back and say all the students are going to come back next year," Swett said during a meeting last month.

Online vs. in person

While Salt Lake City schools typically see a small decline in students each year as the city’s population ages, the district has not had a decrease this steep. Board President Melissa Ford pointed to the likelihood of parents transferring their kids out of the district because it is the only one in the state to have started this fall with instruction entirely online.

Mary Catherine Perry pulled her daughter, who was attending fifth grade in the district, out this fall and enrolled her at Oakwood Elementary in neighboring Granite School District. Perry wanted her to be able to attend class in person after a rocky experience with online school this spring when the pandemic first started.

“Since we are surrounded by school districts that were going back in person, it was really quite easy to move her to a nearby school," she said. "And now she’s thriving.”

Raina Williams, who has five children in the district, said she’s heard from principals at her kids' schools that students are continuing to transfer out. She’s considered moving her kids to be with their friends again and be able to socialize in person (albeit in masks).

Some of the biggest drops in the city have been at elementaries, including a 25% decline at Indian Hills and a 23% decrease at Parkview. The district now has 20,536 students, down from 22,017 last year.

Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley said that Salt Lake City and Granite have basically been swapping students. Some, like Perry’s daughter, are going to Granite for in-person learning. Others in Granite, which has returned mostly face-to-face, are leaving to Salt Lake City for online instruction.

Granite lost 2,138 students this year, though, according to the numbers released by the Utah Board of Education. That’s nearly twice as many as Salt Lake City. And neighboring Canyons School District likewise lost 690, along with Davis hemorrhaging 2,254 students and Provo with 3,286. Those districts, too, are primarily providing in-person instruction.

In fact, Provo District pared back its electronic school and credits most of its decline to that decision made before the pandemic, said spokesman Caleb Price. It lost 3,286 students for a 20% decline and now has 13,317 total.

More than exchanges between traditional K-12 districts, students are exiting to charter or private schools that specialize in virtual teaching.

Charter schools in Utah saw an increase of 1,625 students from last year for more than 79,000 total now. Big gains were made particularly at Utah Virtual Academy, which saw an additional 1,040 students, and Utah Connections Academy, with 348 more. Both teach primarily online.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Connections Academy in Woods Cross on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.

Virtual enrollments, overall, including those offered by traditional school districts, nearly doubled, to 26,605. That includes the options in Tooele, Nebo and Wasatch that also propelled them to the top of the list for population growth while their peers suffered.

Additionally, another 521 kids in Utah moved to private schools. And 3,375 chose to do home-schooling — three times as much as a typical year.

Equity issues

While any parent can choose to move their student to a different district under the state’s open enrollment laws, the data shows that it’s likely more affluent families who are doing so during the pandemic.

For instance, there were 4,400 fewer white students enrolled in K-12 here than last year. That number has never once decreased before, always holding a strong majority in schools. It’s such a big drop that it changed the percentage of white kids from 74% to 73% — which is significant, given that there are 487,150 enrolled.

Meanwhile, every other minority population of kids either increased slightly or held steady for 2020.

That seems to suggest that white families, which are typically in higher economic brackets, are the ones leaving and going to private schools — which are costly. Or they have the support to stay home with their kids and do home-schooling or pay for a tutor. They may also have the transportation needed to take their kids to a school that’s further away from their neighborhood.

A dip in kindergarten students points to the same concern. “We have not been this low in enrollment counts since 2010,” said Aaron Brough, who oversees data and statistics at the Utah Board of Education.

In Utah, he noted, kindergarten is optional. This year, roughly 1,500 fewer students enrolled than last year. That’s a deep decline when there’s typically a reliable increase.

Brough suggested that some parents may be able to afford to stay home with their kid for an extra year and enroll them in 2021 after there’s a vaccine or cases of the virus have declined. Those who have to work and need the child care are likely still sending their kids to kindergarten.

At the same time, the data shows that some students with disadvantages may be losing access to education during the pandemic.

About 400 fewer English language learners enrolled in 2020 than in 2019. In Utah, that number usually grows by a few thousand each year. From 2018 to 2019, for instance, there was a jump of 3,860. For the previous year, 5,611.

That could mean some refugee and immigrant students never signed up for school this year with the pandemic.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Overlooking their class schedules, 13-year-olds, Deborah Tamari, Chanceline Kooutou and Abshiro Yassin, from left, register for fall classes at Clayton Middle School on Tuesday, August 25, 2020.

Horsley with Granite School District said officials there have been unable to find around 100 vulnerable students that were previously enrolled. “They’re not answering the phone," he said.

Similarly, the state enrolled fewer homeless students.

Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah Board of Education, said the state is trying to address economic disadvantages that might have kept students from signing up for classes. For one thing, the numbers seem to suggest that the state is helping fewer low-income students, with a startling drop of 17,000 in that category. It’s based on who signs up for free or reduced lunch, though, and with the federal government providing that right now, many parents are likely just not filling out the form and aren’t being counted this year.

Still, students from low-income or diverse backgrounds are more likely to go “missing,” Peterson said, when looking at population numbers. The state can tell because their records are never sent to another district or private school like with their more affluent peers who transfer.

The state and individual districts are still trying to track down students. Utah conducted an early headcount in September and Peterson said they found roughly 1,000 kids since then. Another one will be done in January to continue to monitor the changes to education caused by the pandemic.