The Anchorage School District says it’s waiting to hear from thousands of families about whether their children will attend classes when school starts in two weeks. And hundreds more have opted to transfer their students out of the district completely as the coronavirus pushes the district to start the year with all classes online.
That’s making planning complicated, district officials reported at Tuesday’s school board meeting. It could also lead to some serious financial strain.
When asked if the district can expect a significant number of students who don’t enroll this year, ASD Superintendent Deena Bishop said, “the answer is yes.”
At this time last year, verified enrollment in the district sat at 29,202 students. The year before, verified enrollment was similar: 29,566. But this year, it’s currently 24,047 – about 5,000 fewer students than expected.
Bishop said the dip in current enrollment numbers could be partly because options for families to walk into school and register in person are either no longer available or have been limited to observe safety and health protocols inside buildings.
“It will take a little bit more time to process the registrations,” Bishop said. “The majority of registration is online, this is the first year we’re having an all online registration, even for those who are new to the district.”
The district reported that about 1,745 enrollment applications are pending, meaning those students have started their registrations but have not completed them, so the district will need to follow up. Of students who have already enrolled, 2,215 of them have signed up for the district’s virtual school.
The district provided an overview of what the virtual school will look like at the board meeting. Bishop likened it to a homeschool program, but run by the district.
Bishop also said the district is coordinating with several child care establishments to provide training to daycare teachers so they can help school age students with school work and facilitate the ASD Virtual program.
“It’s going to keep you moving along in standards. You’ll have some flexibility like homeschools, you can create those pods and small groups, and ASD, just like we’re supporting parents who are doing it in their home, we’re providing professional development to the people who actually are working with our students alongside teachers,” Bishop said.
School board member Dave Donley expressed concerns about the ASD virtual education option and the amount of involvement required by parents or other adult guides.
“It seems like we’re shifting the responsibilities from our teachers, our employees, to the public and to our parents,” Donley said. “Our parents are already paying taxes for this school district. I’m really concerned we’re just dumping it back on them.”
In response, Bishop said ASD Virtual will have ASD teachers working on the platform and with families. “This program is for parents who, rather than register for an outside-the-district homeschool program, they are able to choose an in-ASD virtual program.” Bishop said the program will be very similar to the Florida Virtual School offered by the state — a program Bishop said Donley should be familiar with, given he chose it for his own children this summer.
But families are also moving students to other educational options. The district reported that currently 660 students have transferred out of the district to other programs, over 12 times as many students as in the prior two school years. Of these students, 474 have transferred to statewide homeschools and 186 of them may have gone to private schools, another district in Alaska or left the state entirely.For comparison, Bishop said, the district normally includes a 250-500 student buffer when looking at enrollment numbers every year. “This is significant compared to that,” Bishop said.
Shrinking enrollment could change the district’s financial picture. The bulk of the district’s funding comes from a complicated formula driven by the average number of students enrolled in the district. That average is determined during the first 20 days in October and solidifies the amount of state and local money the district receives.
ASD Chief Financial Officer Jim Anderson said it’s not time to panic yet, though. The district saved over $6 million in the spring as a result of the pandemic. The district will use those savings to purchase technology and devices and support student nutrition this fall. With school starting online this fall, Anderson expects to continue to see savings from things like not renting buses.
“There’s a lot of things we’re not doing, so you do have some cost avoidance,” Anderson said. “Quite, honestly now is not the time for people to breathe in paper bags too much about money.”
Anderson said he will provide several funding projections based on different scenarios at the next school board meeting.
But a lack of enrollment has also generated other obstacles for the district, according to Deputy Superintendent Mark Stock.
“This is probably the most unique staffing year I have ever experienced in 40 years,” Stock said. Given the many different educational options parents can choose from, enrollment numbers need to stabilize in order to staff each option appropriately.
“The principals are going through some significant scheduling issues. The quicker we can have our community support us by getting online, getting enrolled, and at least trying to make an informed decision, that is one of the key drivers that will be driving the next step of logistics,” Stock said.
The district said each school and principal has a plan for reaching out to families in their communities to encourage them to enroll and register. But Stock acknowledged that families do have a major decision to make.
“I don’t know that we can hurry [enrollment], we can’t put a deadline on it, but we are trying to push it,” Stock said. “It will help us tremendously.”
ASD enrollment and registration will continue through the next two weeks and can be completed entirely online.