Slightly more Utah students are learning online this year than were last year with the pandemic — a surprising statistic that comes as the state reported its annual school population counts.
The numbers, released this week, show that 26,711 kids signed up for remote instruction this fall. Last year, 26,605 were online — and that’s not counting Salt Lake City School District, which initially only offered distance learning and no in-person classes for fall 2020.
“Of course, we understand that everything’s not back to normal yet and there are parents, students, teachers and school staff who continue to have concerns,” said State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson in a statement.
Some Utah parents have expressed apprehension about their children returning back to the classroom this year, with most kids too young to get the COVID-19 vaccine and the state Legislature banning any statewide mask mandate for public K-12 schools.
One group has filed a lawsuit, saying that’s created an unsafe environment for their children.
“There are families and children who have no choice and who have to stay online right now,” said Ashley Weitz, one of the parent plaintiffs in the case.
Weitz’s kid, Ezra, is one of those nearly 27,000 students in the state continuing to learn remotely again this year. Ezra has asthma and hemophilia that leave him more susceptible to serious infection. Weitz worries that if she sends him back to the classroom in person now he would catch the coronavirus, making him severely sick.
Ezra is in second grade this fall and was in kindergarten when the pandemic began. That means most of his education has been online.
“I would love for him to be back in the classroom,” Weitz said. “It’s trite to say at this point, but I think we’re still in uncharted territory. I don’t know what it’s going to look like when pediatric vaccines are available. Am I going to feel safe sending Ezra to school then?”
He’s currently attending Salt Lake City School District’s new virtual academy.
Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah Board of Education, which released the numbers, said it’s likely many families are continuing with online education because of the pandemic concerns. He also believes that some have found that the format works better for their students.
“That it’s holding steady, to me, says there are people who really like the option of online only, regardless of the pandemic,” he said.
Before COVID-19, in 2019, 14,755 Utah students were enrolled in online K-12 programs. The jump in 2021 is about a 4% increase from that. And interest in remote learning was growing steadily by about 2,000 students each year, prior to COVID-19, too.
Weitz wonders if she’ll continue having Ezra learn online because he has been doing well in his classes — though she says one challenge has been getting textbooks and other supplies from the district.
Even with the increase this fall, the number of students online represents about a 4% of the total K-12 population in the state.
Overall, the state now has 675,247 public school students. That’s an increase of 8,638 students from last year — a rate of 1.3%. That growth, which is typical for Utah, was a welcome sign after a drop in kids last year, for the first time in Utah in more than two decades.
Of the students, roughly 78,000 are in charter schools and 598,000 are in districts.
The state conducts an annual headcount of students every year on Oct. 1, examining where they’re enrolled, what grade levels, what districts and more. Here are other highlights from this year’s numbers.
Charter school dip
The number of charter school students dropped this year.
There were 79,255 charter students last fall. This fall, it dipped by more than 1,000 to 77,786. That’s a nearly 2% decline.
Though it’s not a massive drop, it will affect funding for charter schools. Each public school in the state is funded based on what’s called a weighted pupil unit. Fewer students means less money.
Some families did choose to transfer their students during the pandemic last year to all-online charters that had been doing remote learning for years.
Jennifer Lambert, executive director of the Utah State Charter School Board, said this year some of them returned to traditional district schools.
“This year, those went back to pre-COVID levels,” she said.
Kindergarten numbers climb
Kindergarten enrollment rebounded this year after a significant dip attributed to COVID-19 last year that was cited as the reason behind to the first decline in Utah’s K-12 population in 20 years.
There are 49,510 kindergartners this year, up from 47,971 last year. In 2019, there were 49,489. The number typically hovers in that range.
Peterson said this is a good sign, showing that more parents are feeling comfortable sending their kids back to the classroom. And, he noted, “it was expected.”
Home-schooling returns closer to normal
Fewer families also elected to do home-schooling, similarly returning to normal numbers.
There were 3,375 students who were home-schooled last year at the peak of COVID-19 concerns. This year, there are 1,227. That’s closer, as well, to the 2019 count, at 914.
Decline in Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City School District continued to see a decline in students — a now 10-year trend.
The district has 19,833 students this fall. That’s down roughly 700 from last year.
Some families reported leaving the district in fall 2020 after the school board decided to start the year entirely online. There was a lot of pushback over the call, with many parents asking for an in-person option and moving to districts or charters when one wasn’t offered.
During a Tuesday board meeting, Sam Quantz, chief information officer for the district’s IT department, said more than 3,000 students that were enrolled in the district last fall didn’t return this fall.
But the district also gained some students — largely kindergartners — making the overall difference slightly smaller, he said.
“For me, the reports are still alarming,” said board member Kristi Swett. “There are some things as a district that we need to look at.”
Within the losses, 14 elementary schools saw a decline in more than 50 students. Now, the largest elementary school in Salt Lake City has 520 students. Most are built to accommodate 600.
Additionally, both East High and West High had decreases.
“We are at a crisis and the declining enrollment should be a priority for the district,” Swett added.
Sharp decreases in enrollment could mean that the district will need to shut down some schools. It could also mean that it’s overstaffed and could see layoffs. Swett estimated that they’ll have 90 teachers too many this year.
Board members discussed what could be driving the change, which has been a pattern. Quantz said even as Salt Lake City’s overall population grows, it’s not because people are having kids. It’s because more adults are moving in.
Families, Quantz noted, are tending to have fewer kids.
The board discussed whether it could work with the Salt Lake City Council to possibly address the price of housing as an obstacle to families moving in. It also raised the idea of creating new specialized academic programs to attract students.
The board intends to complete a deeper demographic study by January.
The racial and ethnic makeup of Utah’s school children stayed relatively the same, though the population is growing more diverse with time.
“Year by year, we are growing a little more diverse,” Peterson said.
Currently, white students are still the majority at 72%. But Latino students now account for one in five of those attending public school in the state. They’re the fastest growing group.
American Indian and Black students are the smallest share at 1% each. That’s followed by Asian and Pacific Islander students, both at 2%. Multiracial students are 3% of the K-12 population.
Hard to say if economic disadvantage is improving
The number of students who are economically disadvantaged is at 27%, or 184,963.
In 2019, that was at 33%, or 216,000. But the apparent “improvement” might not tell what’s actually happening.
Usually, parents have to fill out an application to receive free lunch for their kids if their wages fall below a certain level. School districts use those applications to determine how many students are living below the poverty line.
But with the pandemic, the federal government has offered free school lunches to all students, regardless of income. So parents haven’t been filling out the application, and the number of those considered economically disadvantaged is likely appearing artificially low because of that.
Want to take a look at your kid’s school specifically?
Here’s the full spreadsheet from the state, with breakdowns by school, grade level, race, gender and more.