Despite Loudoun’s growing population and the opening of two new schools this fall, public school enrollment has declined for the second consecutive year, according to preliminary counts released this week.
The district reported 81,318 students enrolled at the start of the new school year, down from 84,175 in 2019. The projected enrollment, calculated using the growth rate of the county population, was 87,619. However, when the School Board adopted its budget, members scaled back that projection to 85,866, fearing the post-COVID rebound would be slower.
Assistant Superintendent of Pupil Services Asia Jones said that these numbers are still preliminary. The official enrollment report will be presented to the School Board on Sept. 30. However, it’s unlikely that students left out of the count or late enrollees will come close to filling those thousands of empty seats. Jones said that typically, during the first month of a school year, enrollment increases by 100 to 500 students.
A number of factors have been cited, including a lack of virtual learning options for students who found success at home last year, continuing COVID safety concerns, and the high-profile battles over equity and other social issues.
Virtual From Home a Better Fit
When schools shut down in March 2020, Loudoun-based social worker Pam Haefner noticed her phones were quieter, as fewer parents were calling for services for their high school-aged children.
“For some kids, whose anxiety was high, it actually was a help to be home. Being home allowed that to have a calmer, less anxiety-provoking situation. For them, it was a Godsend,” Haefner said.
Those families found virtual school and homeschooling to be a permanent solution to students struggles in conventional classrooms.
“Families who would not consider homeschooling prior to the pandemic, because of COVID, they saw how their child did and that they actually still could learn quite well, they are now moving to homeschool, because for their child, it was actually better,” Haefner said. “The pandemic allowed families to try this out and make that switch, because for some kids it was a better situation.”
In 2020, as schools shifted from in-person learning to virtual, droves of parents across Virginia opted to homeschool. That year, the percentage of students in the state who homeschool increased by 48%.
To homeschool in Virginia, parents simply need to provide their school district a Notice of Intent. The standards for homeschooling aren’t regorious; parents simply provide their district’s superintendent an overview of their planned curriculum. At the end of each school year, students must show evidence of achievement by meeting criteria designated the Virginia Department of Education.
Safety from COVID-19
Safety, as the Delta variant brings a new spike of COVID cases, is paramount to in-person instruction for some parents who don’t want risk their young unvaccinated children being exposed to the virus. After school started on Aug. 26, three classes went into quarantine over the course of two days. School Board members with inundated with emails from constituents worried about in-person learning.
In an email to Superintendent Scott Ziegler, School Board member Denise Corbo (At Large) wrote, “Parents are worried and are begging for online options. … I understand the need for getting children back to school. My concern is we know this variant is far more deadly and fast spreading.”
As of Tuesday, there were 94 reported cases of COVID among students, and 27 cases among staff members. Some families have sought reprieve from the large classes in public schools.
At the Embark Center, an alternative education center in Leesburg, program advisor Catina Sweedy said many families are seeking alternatives.
“There are parents who are concerned about health for their kids. Even though there are mask mandates and vaccine mandates, a lot of kids can’t get the vaccines yet. … We’re seeing parents not sure about that and they want to play it safe and keep kids home,” Sweedy said.
Embark Center members are considered homeschoolers, although they engaged in self-directed learning in small groups. In an environment such as Embark Center, contact tracing among a group of two dozen people is tenable for staff, putting parents at ease.
A group of parents held a silent protest outside of the district’s administrative building ahead of Tuesday’s school meeting, pressing for LCPS to reopen the virtual option to students. The parents said that they would have selected Virtual Loudoun for their students, had they known about the virulence of the Delta Variant in youth populations before the admissions closed in June. Among the demonstrators, most of the parents said they are now homeschooling their children.
“A lot of people are doing private schools and homeschooling, and they’re looking for options from the county. The county needs to incorporate everybody’s needs. Everybody else can be vaccinated, except for the kids. They’re putting the kids at risk,” one parent said.
Sasiarekha Murthy is a working mother of two elementary school students. Murthy, not comfortable sending her children back to school until they are vaccinated, is now homeschooling her children.
“We’re not saying stop the in-person learning, what we’re saying is give us a choice. Keeping the kids at home is not an easy option for us. But most of us are doing it because we’re left with no choice. It’s been a very difficult situation,” Murthy said.
Murthy said she teaches her children in the evenings when she gets home from work, and a synchronous virtual option with the school district would solve her family’s problems.
Superintendent Scott Ziegler has repeatedly said that the district is committed to in-person learning, in line with the state Department of Education guidelines. There is not eminent plan to reopen virtual enrollment.
Culture War Flight
Loudoun’s School Board meeting room continues to be a culture-war battleground with critics charging the district is indoctrinating students to a liberal ideology, alleging influences of Critical Race Theory, and criticism of the newly adopted Policy 8040, protecting the right of transgender and gender expansive students. The School Board’s handling of the culture wars and COVID shutdown has spurred contempt among some parents.
Butch Porter oversees the pilot program of a new alternative learning center in Lucketts. He said many families are abandoning the school system because of its shortcomings over the past two years.
“The School Board and the school system has not showed itself up to the task of managing something like COVID, lack of ability to adjust to different opinions, different approaches,” he said. “There are new private schools in Loudoun County, I’m sure those are filing up. What families are doing are figuring out its not working. The first step is to not put up with it anymore.”