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Counting Children in the Pandemic

December 16, 2020

LANSING – Every child is important. To lose even one is too many.

Every fall, local and intermediate school districts and public school academies (PSAs) share their initial enrollment counts with the state’s Center for Education and Performance Information (CEPI). This year’s unaudited fall enrollment was approximately 53,000 fewer students than last year’s fall enrollment.

What to make of this number?

First, over the last ten years, Michigan’s public school population has declined an average of 13,000 students annually. That’s part of this year’s drop in enrollment.

Second, the parents of more than 17,000 students told their public school districts upon exiting this year that they were homeschooling their children. That is roughly 14,000 more students than in each of the last couple of years. Those 14,000 students are another part of this year’s decline.

Many parents are home—working or not during the pandemic—and prefer to homeschool their children, as is their right. This increase in students whose parents indicated to their local public school district an intention to homeschool their children is completely understandable.

Third, Michigan has about 13,000 fewer kindergarten children than last year.  That’s a part of this year’s decline as well.

Some children will benefit from the one-year delay in kindergarten, those who are a little younger and/or a little less ready to start school. Many others will not. Parent choice in a pandemic to wait a year until children can get a more complete, less staccato experience in public schools will serve well some children in some schools and less well other children in other schools. Still, these children aren’t missing: their parents have delayed their kindergarten entry in a pandemic, as is their right.

The remainder—approximately 13,000 students—is a significant concern.

Across the country, public schools have lost students this year during the pandemic.  In Michigan, understanding the count is made more complicated by the roughly 13,000-student annual drop in enrollment over the last decade.

At the state level, the Michigan Department of Education has worked on this issue in a consortium that has included the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators and Education Trust-Midwest, as well as the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, Michigan Education Association, Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, Michigan Association of Public School Academies, Michigan Association of School Boards, Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association, Michigan School Business Officials, and Middle Cities Education Association. The department and these associations have helped raise consciousness and share resources with local and intermediate school districts to address this national issue.

Some have suggested that the state should be able to find these missing children. CEPI, the state’s education data center, works closely with local and intermediate school districts on the annual enrollment counts. Its enrollment data originate from the districts themselves. MDE requires CEPI to acquire from local school districts, to the best of a district’s ability, the reason for a child’s exit. Yet all parents do not provide a reason.

The granular work to find children must take place at the local level, where teachers, support staff, and administrators know children, families, and communities, and where community connections with churches, neighborhood associations, and other youth- and family-serving entities can help.

Michigan schools and school districts have worked diligently in this effort and many students are “back at school,” either in person or virtually, because of these efforts. Still, all children should be connected to a school—public, private, parochial, or homeschool.

What else can be done?

Local schools and school districts should continue to work with the widest range of community partners—faith-based institutions, social service agencies, law enforcement, and others—to ensure that every child in each community is receiving an education.

State law needs to require a count of homeschool children. It helps to know the number of public school students from last year whose parents have decided to homeschool their children this year. We are able to compare the exodus this year to that in previous years and calculate the difference. This is different, of course, from knowing the base number of homeschool students. To know the numbers of public school, private school, parochial school, and homeschool students helps to determine more precisely the number of children who are not being educated at all. We need this information, both during and after a pandemic.

Finally, we need to better support our public schools. They were underfunded pre-pandemic, and the pandemic has exposed additionally issues of funding adequacy and equity: inadequate socioemotional supports, digital divide issues, and staffing challenges chief among them. Our Michigan children deserve better.

Michael F. Rice, Ph.D.
State Superintendent
December 16, 2020