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Here’s how many more students have left Salt Lake City schools, likely due to online learning

Enrollment already had dropped by 1,500 students this fall; hundreds more have left in the past two months

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) East High students join a protest outside their school in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, in response to more students failing this fall with classes entirely online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Another 300 students have transferred out of schools in the Salt Lake City School District over just the past two months — adding to the already major decline in enrollment there since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

The district in Utah’s capital — the only one statewide where all classes are taught online — went from having 21,460 students at the start of October to 21,143 by the end of November. And that drop comes after enrollment was already down by roughly 1,500 compared with the start of last school year.

With that, Salt Lake City schools have now lost a total of 1,886 students in fall 2020 alone, according to data released to The Salt Lake Tribune.

That 8% enrollment drop is the highest percentage decline of any district in Salt Lake County this year (the next closest, Granite, lost roughly 3%).

All four of the other districts in the county reopened with the option of in-person classes this fall. Salt Lake City School District’s decision to remain entirely virtual appears to be driving its downturn.

Neither the district’s spokesperson nor the school board president or vice president returned requests for comment Monday.

The district’s students have been struggling academically during the pandemic and with online learning. In the first quarter, 4,000 Salt Lake City junior high and high school students received one or more F’s or incompletes, according to data released to The Tribune last week in response to a public records request.

That’s 1,500 more students failing a class than last year. And 364 secondary students failed every first-quarter class.

Salt Lake City, which has seen its population age recently, typically enrolls 400 to 600 fewer kids each year, as existing students get older and younger families move out to suburbs. But this year’s drop is three times the highest decrease seen before the pandemic.

And what’s more unusual is that enrollment is continuing to drop during the school year — it usually levels out by this time, as students settle into their classes. The district lost 223 kids in October, though, and another 94 in November, for the 317 total that left over the course of the last two months.

That coincides, in part, with the end of the first quarter of all-digital learning, and the increase in failing students.

Other districts in the county have seen similar failing rates during the pandemic, too, but mostly with their students who have chosen to take their classes online.

A handful of Salt Lake City students gathered at East High School Monday to protest the increase in failing grades and not having an option to attend school face-to-face. Some said if there’s not a change soon, they may leave, too. One high schooler wore a mask and carried a sign that said: “Let us back to school!” Several elementary students joined in, chanting: “Kids need school” and “Open school doors.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gabriel Hansen, 12, joins the protest at East High in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, in response to more students failing this fall with classes entirely online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Luke Williams, a ninth grader, read a statement. “Every day I ask my mom to please get me enrolled somewhere that I can actually go to school. This isn’t working,” he said, according to a video of his speech posted on social media.

Viviena Wolfgramm, a junior at Highland High School, added that she may transfer to Skyline High in Granite School District if face-to-face instruction isn’t offered.

Enrollment numbers are a way of seeing what parents feel is best for their children, said Mark Peterson, spokesperson for the Utah Board of Education. In Utah, schools offer open enrollment, which means students can attend anywhere if a school has room to take them. And many are choosing to no longer pursue digital instruction in Salt Lake City.

“We expect parents to make choices that fit their family needs,” Peterson noted.

Mary Catherine Perry, for instance, pulled her daughter, who was attending fifth grade in Salt Lake City, out this fall. She enrolled her at Oakwood Elementary in neighboring Granite School District.

“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,” Perry has previously said. “And now she’s thriving.”

Some of the biggest enrollment drops in the city have been at elementary schools, including a 25% decline at Indian Hills and a 23% decrease at Parkview. With younger kids who can’t read yet, online learning can be more of a struggle.

Because of that, the district’s board voted to have elementary students return to in-person classes at the end of January. For some, like Perry, that came too late. Others want junior high and high school students to be able to go back, too.

The district had originally decided not to return in person unless the average weekly positivity rate in the greater county was below 5% of those tested. It is currently at 23%.

The state expects districts across the state to continue to see fluctuating enrollment throughout the pandemic. It will conduct another formal headcount in January.

“Particularly with schools open and closed with quarantines, and some districts opting for hybrid and some for online and some in person,” Peterson added, “that’s why we’re continuing to do the check-ins on enrollment.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Young students join the protest at East High in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, in response to more students failing this fall with classes entirely online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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