PITTSBORO — During the third school year impacted by the pandemic, student enrollment at Chatham County Schools is up slightly from 2020 but still lower than 2019 — the last “pre-pandemic” school year.
This follows a statewide trend — the Average Daily Membership (ADM) for traditional schools statewide increased .8% from last year, but is down 4.3% compared to before COVID-19, according to Month 1 ADM data released by the N.C. Dept. of Public Instruction this fall. The total ADM across all the state’s districts increased by 1.5% from Month 1 to Month 2, DPI data shows, marking a minor rebound in enrollment.
In Chatham, there was a .76% increase in enrollment from last year and a 2.57% decrease from pre-pandemic, with 8,720 students recorded in Month 1. By Month 2, that number was up .97%, at 8,805 students.
Mary Ann Wolf, the executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, told EducationNC in November the ADM data is a reminder that the state is still trying to find its way through a pandemic.
“The good news is that this year, we do see a bit of a rebound in terms of public school student enrollments. But the truth is, all schools are still struggling to meet the needs of their students and educators,” she said. “We do not have sufficient resources in place to serve the academic, social and emotional needs of our students and classrooms today, and we absolutely have to do more to ensure that every child has access to a sound basic education.”
ADM is a measurement used by the state to give an estimate of how many students are in schools, which is slightly different from the enrollment numbers listed in CCS reports — the CCS Month 1 enrollment report lists 8,828 students, compared to the Month 1 ADM report’s 8,720.
DPI defines ADM as: “The total number of school days within a given term, usually a school month or school year, that a student’s name is on the current roll of a class, regardless of his/her being present or absent, is the number of days in membership for that student. The sum of the number of days in membership for all students divided by the number of school days in the term yields ADM.”
ADM is a more accurate count of the number of students in school than enrollment, DPI says. In North Carolina, school districts receive funding based on their projected ADMs, meaning that they could face budget cuts for lower numbers. In September 2020, the General Assembly passed a bill ensuring districts would not face such cuts for ADM declines. The newly passed state budget this year also includes a provision so school districts don’t lose funding if their student population drops under projected numbers.
That doesn’t mean long-term effects of such declines aren’t of any concern, Chatham Communities In Schools’ Jazmin Mendoza Sosa told the News + Record last year.
“I see potential long-term consequences as losing resources, teachers and find(ing) it difficult to support children,” she said at the time, when she was working as a CIS student support specialist at Virginia Cross Elementary School.
As the district transitioned to in-person learning, Mendoza Sosa anticipated last April that the district would be able to better identify the “missing students” or address the reason for decline of enrollment.
Now a CIS program director, she said the organization is still working with CCS to understand both enrollment declines and absences among students, still up from before COVID.
“CIS continues working along social workers to make sure our students are attending school regularly,” she told the News + Record. “There is a pattern of students continuing to miss school who before the pandemic had not been an issue.”
Regarding school absences, CCS Assistant Superintendent of Academic Services and Instructional Support Amanda Moran said quarantine requirements — even relaxed with new state guidance this year — account for a lot of the increased absences.
In early December, she said about 80 to 100 Siler City students were absent in a single week.
“When they backtracked all those (absences) out, it was only a handful of kids that were out for reasons other than the quarantine piece,” she said.
The district is seeing lower attendance rates at its higher poverty schools, Moran said, which CCS social workers attribute in part due to the barriers that come with being able to get a negative COVID-19 test — transportation, cost or finding an appointment — which allow students to come back to school before the completion of a 10-day quarantine period.
Since November, all the district’s schools have offered free weekly testing to students and through Raleigh-based Mako Medical.
Still, absences dont impact student enrollment numbers, Moran said, even when using ADM calculations. Attendance is for students enrolled this school year; enrollment tracks the number of students enrolled at CCS while ADM looks at the number of school days a student’s name is on a class roll.
Anecdotally, Moran said families she’s spoken to have looked to alternative options to traditional schools, such as charter schools and homeschooling. The ADM at the state’s charter schools has increased the last two years, though at a slower pace than last year, DPI data shows — up 12.1% from before the pandemic, and 4.2% from last year.
“Some (families) have cited smaller class sizes, meaning there’s more spacing available for COVID,” Moran said. “Another has been the masking mandates — they said there were some charters, and I don’t know this to be true or not true, but they claim that there were some charters that were not requiring masks. And we, of course, have been.”
Chatham’s three charter schools have each required masks indoors this year, though Chatham Charter briefly started the school year without such a mandate.
Kelli Hulsey, CCS executive director of accountability and student information systems, said the state ADM trends track with what she’s seen at CCS. DPI performs ADM calculations based on information submitted to PowerSchool by each district.
Hulsey said though the two are separate issues, the increased absences coupled with decreases in enrollment can make individual school interventions more challenging.
“I do think that people explored other choices, and I don’t know that we have a way to measure what that looks like,” she said. “But there’s more options for students than there would’ve been at one point, like charter schools and homeschooling. I don’t know that number but I think it’s a pretty large group … there’s a lot of factors I think that would contribute to enrollment declines.”
This content was published in partnership with EdNC.org, an independent, nonprofit source of news, data, and analysis about education for the people of North Carolina.
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.
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