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Connecticut student enrollment declines 3% amid pandemic

Student enrollment has decreased 3% across the state, from 527,829 in 2019-20 to 512,393 in 2020-21, according to preliminary numbers the Connecticut State Department of Education released Wednesday.

State education officials attribute that partly to parents delaying the start of school for young children because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The rate of this one-year decline is similar to the rate of decline previously seen over a five-year period.

More than 50% of the decline is due to lower enrollment in prekindergarten and kindergarten, and that's happening disproportionally in the 33 lower-performing Alliance Districts, Chief Performance Officer Ajit Gopalakrishnan said. The Alliance Districts in southeastern Connecticut are New London, Norwich and Groton.

Gopalakrishnan also said that when comparing June to October 2019 with June to October 2020, the number of students who exited schools because their parents are home-schooling them increased by about 3,000.

This also is being seen more in the earlier grades, but predominantly in districts that aren't Alliance Districts.

Gopalakrishnan said he hasn't seen comparable reports and data from other states but, from informal conversations, it seems the enrollment decline in early grades is happening in other states, as well.

In addition, fewer new students have enrolled in grades 1 to 12. Gopalakrishnan said he can't say yet if the drop would have been greater without families moving to Connecticut from New York due to the pandemic, saying that "requires more analysis than we've been able to do in this short term."

Enrollment data typically isn't released until February and is subject to change but the department is trying to be as transparent as possible, Gopalakrishnan said.

Preliminary estimates show that among local districts, enrollment dropped 2.9% in East Lyme, 4.8% in Groton, 3.6% in Ledyard, 4.8% in Montville, 4.9% in New London, 5.5% in North Stonington, 10.5% in Preston, 4% in Stonington, 4.1% in Waterford and 0.5% in Region 18 (Lyme-Old Lyme).

Student attendance falls for high-needs students, remains steady for others

The department also released student attendance data for September 2020. The monthly reporting is a first: The department typically reports attendance data at the end of the school year but, because of the pandemic, Gopalakrishnan said it wanted "to have a much more real-time sense of how students were attending in this school year."

This means that there's no baseline comparison, so the department is comparing September 2020 to the entire 2019-20 school year.

Gopalakrishnan said for students who aren't considered high-needs — meaning those who aren't low-income, aren't English learners, and don't have a disability — attendance for September was comparable to 2019-20: over 95%.

But attendance was lower among high-needs students, and the decline was even more pronounced among students deemed high-needs based on more than one factor.

For a student to be counted as in attendance, he or she must be present for at least half the school day, Gopalakrishnan said. The remote learning days in districts doing a hybrid model present an additional challenge for measuring attendance.

"Anecdotally, we have heard from districts there is some variation in how folks have put this into play," Gopalakrishnan said. He said the department wants districts to make a determination on attendance the subsequent day, in case students submit work at night, but not all districts started off doing this in September.

How is the Department of Education addressing issues?

In a media call and a news release, education officials detailed their actions to promote student attendance, including the introduction in September of monthly data collections on enrollment and attendance.

The department said it will use district-level data "to identify and support districts where attendance in September 2020 was substantially lower than in the 2019-20 school year."

The department also said it is working with the Department of Children and Families and Attendance Works, a national initiative to boost school attendance, to address challenges arising from the pandemic, holding biweekly virtual meetings with attendance administrators in Alliance Districts, and holding webinars for districts and families.

e.moser@theday.com

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