Maine’s public schools enrolled nearly 8,000 fewer students this fall than a year ago, as some parents have kept younger students home and others have turned to homeschooling and private schools during a school year altered by the pandemic.
While Maine’s school enrollment has dropped in all but one year over the past decade, this year’s drop of 7,865 students is more than five times the size of the next largest recent enrollment drop, when Maine schools lost 1,554 students between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years.
Statewide enrollment now stands at 172,474 students, according to the Maine Department of Education.
Across the county, enrollment in public schools has plummeted since schools resumed instruction using a combination of in-person and online learning this year, and have often had to close their buildings abruptly due to coronavirus cases. Maine’s drop of 4.36 percent is similar to enrollment drops in other New England states, including Connecticut and Massachusetts.
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The hardest-hit grades both across the country and in Maine have been prekindergarten and kindergarten, in which statewide enrollment dropped this year by 23.49 and 12.46 percent respectively, according to the Maine Department of Education’s preliminary enrollment data, which is based on totals from Oct. 1.
The reason the youngest grades saw the steepest decline might be because Maine parents are not required to enroll their children in school until age 6, according to Steven Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association.
“Some parents were hesitant to send their children to school, knowing that they had another year before they were required to be in school,” he said. “We’re hoping this will be temporary.”
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The enrollment decline corresponds with a drastic increase in homeschooling across the state this year. The number of students who have opted to learn at home — either alone or in homeschooling groups — grew by 3,231 this fall, an increase of almost 32 percent over last year.
The number of students who withdrew from public schools to attend private schools also increased significantly, from 291 last year to 868 this year.
Parents’ concerns about sending students to public schools during the pandemic are generally the reason for the decline in enrollment statewide, Bailey said. But the more specific reasons have changed as the semester has progressed.
“Back in August I think we heard a lot of concern about whether schools could even stay open for two weeks and people were making decisions based on hypothesizing what could happen,” said Regan Nickels, superintendent of Regional School Unit 22 in the Hampden area. “Now I think people have seen that it’s working, but it’s just not a convenient model.”
Parents struggling to juggle partially remote learning with their own work schedules this semester have been responsible for some of the decline, Nickels said.
In RSU 22, which covers Hampden, Newburgh, Frankfort and Winterport, enrollment declined by about 6.6 percent, or 164 students, this fall, Nickels said. Most of the drop was in the younger grades, she said, particularly pre-K and kindergarten.
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Bangor saw a similar drop, with nearly 6 percent fewer students attending the city’s schools this year, according to interim Superintendent Kathy Harris-Smedberg. Brewer’s decline was slightly less, with a 4 percent drop, according to Superintendent Gregg Palmer.
Districts can lose state funding as a result of enrollment drops. Harris-Smedberg said losing 212 students could translate roughly to a loss of $1.8 million in funding for Bangor schools for the next school year.
But the correlation between enrollment drops and state aid losses is “incredibly nuanced and cannot be easily determined,” said Maine Department of Education spokesperson Kelli Deveaux.
“There are many variables within the funding formula that can mitigate or exacerbate student counts and their impact on funding,” she said. “Any conjecture or predictions on state subsidy at this time would be premature.”
Public school leaders hope that many of the students who aren’t attending school this year will return next year, but it is too soon to predict the long-term impacts of the pandemic on enrollment.
“If there’s a positive, it’s that the drop wasn’t larger than it is, and that schools have been doing an excellent job of trying to be sure that learning environments are safe for students, staff and families,” Bailey said.