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KARE 11 Investigates: Minnesota school enrollment dropped by 21,000 during pandemic

New numbers show the biggest declines among economically disadvantaged students and in kindergarten.

Editor's note: The full story will air at 10 p.m. Wednesday 

Minnesota school enrollment dropped during the 2020-2021 school year as pandemic concerns, policies and distance learning struggles caused students to leave public schools.

New data obtained by the Associated Press shows Minnesota school enrollment down 2.3% - slightly better than the national average of 2.6%. 

But the declines were much steeper among some of the most at risk students and in kindergarten.

School officials tell KARE 11 the enrollment numbers create a challenge for administrators trying to plan for next year because both funding and enrollment are in flux. 

“The significant change and fluctuation this year through the pandemic is the greatest challenge because we don’t know what to expect,” said Ron Meyer, Executive Director of Finance and Operations for the Osseo Area School District.

Credit: Associated Press

State funding is determined by last year’s enrollment. But teacher staffing will depend on student numbers this fall, creating problems if there is a sudden rebound in enrollment.

In Osseo, kindergarten enrollment was down 13% last year, leaving the district to prepare for a possible surge this academic year.

“We might not know until the first day of school,” Meyer said.

At-risk students

Enrollment among students classified as “economically disadvantaged” plummeted more than 12% last school year. In contrast, students who were “not economically disadvantaged” increased more than 3%.

This winter, KARE 11 spoke with school counselors reaching out to kids who were too often missing from online classes.

“We kind of target our kids that are currently struggling,” explained Sandra Mortenson, a Bloomington School Counselor. She worked to bring kids into the fold by going door-to-door with treats like cookies and donuts.

Credit: KARE 11
St. Paul school counselor Wendy Eiden says students often struggled during the pandemic.

Wendy Eiden from St. Paul Public Schools said she saw kids struggling with new pressures brought on by the pandemic. 

"Kids are having more responsibility with their siblings. And we're having a number of our high school kids actually taking jobs during the school day,” she said.

The beneficiary of pandemic restrictions appears to be private schools, according to the data. Enrollment in private schools was up slightly.

Kindergarten changes

The most dramatic enrollment changes were in kindergarten classes.

Kindergarten enrollment in Minnesota’s public schools dropped 9%.

Officials believe many kindergarten families simply decided to hold their kids back a year. Others may have homeschooled or attended private schools. Records show private kindergarten enrolment was up nearly 12%.

Deb Henton of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators says that poses a unique challenge for districts that don’t know how many of those students will return to public schools this fall.

Credit: KARE 11
Deb Henton of the School Administrators Association says it's hard to predict upcoming enrollment.

That might lead to a need for more teachers as numbers swell and students arrive with varying levels of preparedness.

“It’s a problem because we don’t know how many students are coming back,” she said.

The concerns span grade levels and both rural and urban districts - driven in part by parents still uncertain about pandemic restrictions and safety.

“We probably won’t know until September,” Henton said. “They might want to wait to see if there is a mask mandate. They might want to see where we’re at with vaccines for the younger students.”

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