MISSOULA — It's not the sharp drop-off school administrators feared last spring but the COVID-19 pandemic is having its impact on enrollment -- which could force some tighter budgets next year.
It's a statistic that school superintendents watch every year, but enrollment is even more critical during the pandemic. The fall and spring, student counts form the basis of state funding next year.
Missoula County is seeing the overall student count fall off about 2% -- about twice that in the elementary schools. Missoula County Public Schools has seen the largest drop with the smallest students.
“Kindergarten is always the hardest one to predict because those students are not in school yet obviously, and you're basically basing it on live birth data from five years prior,” MCPS Superintendent Rob Watson said.
“So, it's always the hardest one to predict right now. I think our kindergarten was down about 80 students,” he continued. “And chances are parents found another alternative for kindergarten and or they decided to wait a year before they put their students in school.”
For many districts, including MCPS, the elementary numbers are offset by a demographic bump in high school.
“At grades nine through 12, we actually saw a slight increase, which we expected because we had a large eighth-grade class that was moving into ninth grade this year,” Watson told MTN News.
“So, we somewhat expected an increase in high school. It wasn't as big as we thought. I think we're up about 100 students at high school,” Watson added.
Flathead County schools are off at about the same rates while Ravalli County schools down about 4%. Many districts, like Hamilton, are off slightly, or nearly flat, taken across all grade levels.
Statewide, K-8 enrollment is down nearly 4%, and up over 2% in the high schools. Overall, the drop is more than 2,700 students.
Meanwhile, largely because of the pandemic, homeschooling is up by a whopping 62% statewide.
“Some parents have opted for total online learning, and Watson says enrollment in the Missoula Online Academy remains strong and those classes will continue into next spring and the enrollment numbers are being counted for next year's budgets,” Watson explained.
However, it's not just numbers -- superintendents are also appreciative of patience from every corner.
“And I understand that parents would like a little bit more predictability and quite honestly, as teachers, we also thrive on that predictability for planning purposes,” Watson said.
“So, we're doing I think the best that we can, but we understand that both parents and teachers have and other staff members have really provided a lot of patience for us as we work through this,” Watson concluded.
The Montana Office of Public Instruction held a call with district administrators across the state on Wednesday, and it's expected those discussions will continue as school funding is debated in the upcoming session of the Montana legislature.