Montana public school enrollment shows decline


This past fall and spring, the Montana public school system reported notable declines in student enrollment attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that trend appears to be reversing as K-12 schools across the state have reverted to in-person teaching despite the continued presence of the virus.

According to preliminary data from the Montana Office of Public Instruction, statewide enrollment this fall stands at 151,765 students, an increase of 6,133 students, or 4.2%, from fall 2020. The total, which is still under review towards the completion of a final report later this year, comes from a routine collection of current enrollment figures from all public schools from Kindergarten to Grade 12. Grade 12 conducted by OPI each October. State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen told the Montana Free Press this week that the apparent upward trend is “positive” and “really good for the public school in tough times.”

Statewide registrations in last fall’s tally were down 1.8% from the previous year, and the drop fell to 2.4% this spring in another routine tally performed every February. Meanwhile, home school enrollments jumped nearly 70% in fall 2020, prompting speculation among educators and county superintendents that parents were choosing to educate their children. children at home rather than sending them to schools struggling to fight the pandemic. OPI has received home school numbers from just 31 of Montana’s 56 counties so far this month, but early figures already show a collective decline of more than 900 homeschooled students.

This month’s tally also showed that current public school enrollments are 1.7% higher than pre-COVID levels recorded in fall 2019.

“I tend to think of it as a sign that families are voting with their feet, so to speak, and going back to their schools.”

Lance Melton, Executive Director of the Montana School Boards Association

The anticipation of a rebound in public school enrollment sparked considerable concern and discussion in the legislature this spring about the impact of fluctuations in enrollment on public education funding, which is being formulated on the basis of student counts collected by the OPI. Lawmakers and education actors have worked to alleviate the problem by allowing districts to use millions of federal dollars in COVID-19 relief to address any enrollment-based funding challenges that may arise until in September 2024.

Arntzen was hesitant to attribute this fall’s enrollment gains only to parents re-enrolling their children in public schools, suggesting that an influx of new residents into the state could also be a contributing factor. But Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association (MTSBA), said he had not seen a volume of relocation of families with children that would reduce the “sharp drop in enrollment we saw throughout the year. last “, which totaled 3,549 students from all grades.

“I tend to think of it as a sign that families are voting with their feet, so to speak, and going back to their schools,” Melton said of the upward trend.

The increase comes as schools across the state continue to grapple with disruption caused by COVID-19. Positive cases among students and teachers were reported statewide in the first half of the fall semester, and entire schools were forced to temporarily close their doors and switch to distance learning. due to epidemics. The most recent multi-day distance learning announcements came this week from schools in Darby, Glasgow and Livingston.

The situation has created pockets of tension around Montana, with some parents demanding that districts take tougher measures to contain the spread of the virus, and others rallying against proposed and enacted mandates. Arntzen has repeatedly emphasized that local school leaders should take parents’ concerns into account when discussing COVID-19 mitigation strategies, while encouraging respect for elected members of local school boards. In a letter of October 15, she urged Montana school boards and the MTSBA to publicly denounce the National School Boards Association, writing that the organization had branded the parents “domestic terrorists” when asking the US Department of Justice for help in investigating threats against educators nationwide.

Arntzen told the MTFP on Tuesday that his stance on schools’ COVID protocols has not changed in response to continued positive cases and school closures, reiterating that such decisions are a matter of local control. She also linked the often heated debates at public school board meetings across the state to the rise in enrollment in the fall, saying parents wouldn’t be at those meetings if they didn’t want their children to attend. children are enrolled in public school.

“I believe these parents want their children to be in public education,” Arntzen said. “At least they want to choose public education… I would launch a call to action to our school leaders and our parents so that they are civilians, to understand the purpose of an elected official in this meeting room and the role of parents in education. “

When asked for a response to Artnzen’s letter, Melton responded by email, claiming that the Superintendent’s solicitation for a National School Boards Association whistleblower was “misplaced” and “of no use. other than creating controversy at a time when increased civility, decorum, kindness and mutual respect is what is needed.

“Elected school boards have welcomed feedback from members of their community and have listened intently to a variety of perspectives to make the important decisions necessary to ensure a safe and effective learning environment for every child in every public school,” indicates the answer.

For Melton, the widespread tension over pandemic policies presents a unique challenge for returning students who he says likely have more complex needs today than they have in the past.

“Look at how we all act as adults, and the diversity of opinions and in some cases the strong expression of those opinions in a way that divides,” Melton said in an interview. “Now you have children who are in many cases the subject of these conflicts, and they are going back to school and carrying the worries associated with the disruption of their traditional life. “

Still, Melton is encouraged by recent public polls conducted by the Montana Public Education Center, a coalition of key public school associations in the state. Full results are expected to be released later this week, but according to Melton, the majority of respondents said they trust teachers and local school board members more than anyone in the Montana education system when it comes to it. decide what is best for the students academically. As president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, which represents teachers in the state’s public schools, Amanda Curtis said returning students to their classrooms is “only a good thing.” especially in districts that take appropriate precautions against COVID.

“It has been a nightmare to have the children scattered around, some in person, some at home, others completely missing,” Curtis said. “Teachers worry so much about their students, especially in the small schools where they follow them from kindergarten to high school. So not necessarily knowing where their students are or if they are learning something is only the worst case scenario for a teacher.

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