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Pandemic-era enrollment losses likely to cost Guilford County Schools money and teaching posts, but not cause layoffs, official says
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Pandemic-era enrollment losses likely to cost Guilford County Schools money and teaching posts, but not cause layoffs, official says

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GREENSBORO — Guilford County Schools’ pandemic-era enrollment losses are likely to cost the district money and teaching positions this school year, but not cause layoffs or significant financial problems, the district’s chief financial officer said.

State lawmakers use enrollment figures to determine how much money districts will get for staff positions, such as teachers, and for other costs, such as supplies.

On the 20th day of school this fall, enrollment in Guilford County Schools stood at 69,590, including pre-K. That’s a decline of about 1% from last fall. Not including pre-K, enrollment was 68,202.

Across the five years before the COVID-19 pandemic, the district’s enrollment, including pre-K, dropped by 450 students, according to a News & Record analysis of data provided by the district. Within the last two years it dropped by another 3,367. That’s a decline of 2,539 students in 2020, plus another 828 this school year. Overall, that’s a 4.6% drop in enrollment since 2019, data shows.

Guilford County Schools lost more than 3,300 students over the past two school years during the COVID-19 pandemic. By comparison, the district's enrollment dropped by about 450 students overall the five years before the pandemic, data shows.

When fewer students show up to a school district in the fall than projected, it can lead to a mid-year cut in state funding.

Last year, lawmakers put in a special pandemic-related provision to help cushion school districts from unexpected enrollment drops. However, Angie Henry, the chief financial officer for Guilford County Schools, said she is less optimistic that would happen this year, based on her following of what’s going on at the General Assembly as it works to try and pass a budget for the state.

Instead, she expects the state would just go by the normal process, adjusting its funding based on average daily student membership for the first or second month of the year, whichever is higher.

Guilford County Schools is likely to lose teacher and instructional support positions, she said, as well as money in categories like classroom materials, textbooks, and career and technical education. The flip side, she said, is lots of expenses also decrease when enrollment falls and not all funding is tied to enrollment.

Henry said there will be no need for layoffs. The district can leave some openings created by resignations and retirements unfilled and shift teachers around if needed.

The lower enrollment numbers are also likely to influence the state’s projections for how many students the district will have next year. That could affect Guilford County Schools’ budgeting for next year, but again, Henry does not expect it to cause any layoffs or significant financial problems for the district.

What affects enrollment?

Many factors typically influence school district enrollment, including varying birth rates, dates for kindergarten age eligibility, children moving in and out of the county, and enrollment in charter, homeschool, and private schools. That goes for both enrollment overall and by grade level.

Last fall, school officials pointed to declining kindergarten enrollment as a big part of the drop, with about 800 fewer kindergartners enrolled on the 20th day than expected. School leaders said at the time that the school year starting online likely deterred some families of rising kindergartners from enrolling, a trend that also played out in other school districts around the country who moved to online learning because of the pandemic.

Guilford County Schools’ kindergarten enrollment rebounded somewhat this year, increasing by nearly 300 students. This year’s first graders are still a smaller-than-usual group, likely reflecting last year’s smaller kindergarten class, though the cohort did pick up more than 200 extra students since they were together in kindergarten.

Superintendent Sharon Contreras said recently that transfers to charter schools also contributed significantly to Guilford County Schools’ enrollment drop.

There were 1,247 students who left the district for charter schools during the last school year, when classes were not fully back in person, she said. Another 29 wound up leaving for charter schools after enrolling for this school year.

Some of those students may have returned, joining with other new students coming into the district and counterbalancing that loss somewhat.

Contreras said she thinks two factors increased the number of students leaving for charter schools. One, she said, is families choosing to go to schools where they thought their children would not have to comply with mask mandates this academic year. Many families made their decisions before the Guilford County Board of Commissioners enacted a countywide indoor mask mandate, she said.

“They weren’t expecting that Guilford County would move toward a mask mandate; they thought this was just Guilford County Schools,” she said. “We have quite a bit of information from principals about students who switched to charter schools because of the mask mandate.”

Also, she said, some families left the district for charter schools last year while district schools were not fully reopened, seeking in-person learning. She said many working parents were unable to stay home with their children during remote learning.

The enrollment changes varied by grade level, and not all were decreases.

Based on information posted on Guilford County Schools’ data dashboard, this year’s 12th graders are the group that shrunk the most. There were 631 fewer seniors on the 20th day of school this year than there were in 11th grade last year.

Some of those students moved away. About 160 of last year’s 11th graders transferred outside of the state or to public schools outside the county. By comparison, about 90 juniors followed that path in 2019-20.

Another factor: students failing classes. A few hundred students who were supposed to be seniors this year are still with the district, as juniors.

“What I think you don’t see is that 320 of them are back in school, but were retained,” Contreras said. That’s more than 2.5 times as many 11th graders as retained the year before.

As for how many students the district lost because they dropped out, that information is not available yet. District officials said dropout rates have to be validated by the state.

Guilford County Schools set a record for on-time graduation rates for 2020-21, but also saw an increase in students held back a grade, Contreras said. That signals a challenge ahead to help current students graduate.

“We believe what you are seeing is the impact of the pandemic and high school students struggling,” she said. “I’ve been talking about this for nearly two years now, that the pandemic would impact vulnerable students the most, and that’s what we see here.”

Contact Jessie Pounds at 336-373-7002 and follow @JessiePounds on Twitter.

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