(Updated at 4:50 p.m.) Arlington Public Schools is seeing a sharp decline in enrollment this year as families cope with remote learning during the pandemic.
From September 2019 to September 2020, PreK-12 enrollment fell from 28,020 to 26,895 — a 4% drop — according to APS’ official Sept. 30 count. That’s an even bigger drop than the preliminary numbers at the beginning of September, which showed enrollment of 27,109.
The drop comes after years of enrollment growth. As of earlier this year, enrollment fall enrollment was projected to be 29,142, a 4% increase over 2019.
The change is sharpest in the elementary schools, and levels off in the secondary schools. Elementary schools in more affluent North Arlington neighborhoods — including Ashlawn, McKinley and Jamestown — have some of the biggest drops.
PreK enrollment alone is down 270 kids versus last year, the APS numbers show, while K-5 enrollment at elementary schools is down by 843 students.
“The elementary is where you see the story,” said Lisa Stengle, Executive Director of Planning and Evaluation for APS, adding that kindergarten alone has seen a drop of about 300 students.
Anecdotally, officials in public and private education say families are opting for parochial and private schools that are offering more in-person instruction. Currently, APS is fully remote, though moving towards “hybrid” in-person learning in the coming months.
Stengle said staff have told her that families are deciding to wait a year, homeschool their kids or switch to private and parochial schools.
About 74 new students enrolled at Our Savior Lutheran School in Barcroft, which Principal Joshua Klug described as a “huge increase.” His school offers daily in-person sessions in the morning or afternoon, with have no more than 10 children per class.
Normally, the largest increases are in kindergarten, with 15 to 20 new students. This year’s surge crossed grade levels, he said. Enrollment is now 126 students, up from 113 last year.
“We get new families every year, but it’s a greater percentage this year than in past years,” he said. “We lost more than we would normally lose because of the pandemic, but we definitely gained more than we normally do.”
Klug said he’s not sure whether all of the new students will stay when public schools reopen their buildings for all students. But there might also be an influx of students when conditions feel safer.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said.
Stengle said the fluctuation is not a sustained pattern, but “the effect of the pandemic.” Still, that decline is not as sharp as it may appear, she said.
“We’re lower than projected, but we’re not a lot lower than our actual enrollment,” she said. “Next year, I expect to see growth when we return to a normal school setup.”
Some schools saw increases, including Wakefield High School, which is located in one of Arlington’s fastest-growing areas for student enrollment.
Among nearby school systems, Fairfax County Public Schools also saw a decrease in enrollment, by about 8,000 students. In his opening of schools report on Sept. 18, Superintendent Scott Brabrand said 181,477 students enrolled in this year, compared to the 189,837 students projected in the budget.
Alexandria City Public Schools also recently had a high-profile instance showing the draw of private schools. Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. recently confirmed that one of his two children has enrolled at the private Bishop Ireton High School since the start of the pandemic. Hutchings confirmed the decision to Theogony, the T.C. Williams High School paper.
“I can confirm that our family made a decision to change my daughter’s school this school year,” Hutchings told Theogony. “Decisions like these are very personal family decisions and are not taken lightly. This in no way impacts my absolute lifelong, commitment to public education, to which I remain as personally dedicated as ever.”