Tens of thousands of FL students are unaccounted for during the pandemic. Where are they?

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Classroom. Credit: Pixabay.

When the COVID-19 pandemic upended schools in the 2019-20 academic year, student enrollment was expected to go down.

In fact, across all districts, Florida’s 2020-21 school population has dropped by nearly 70,000 students compared to last school year, according to Florida Department of Education data.

Now, educators and lawmakers are trying to figure out where those kids are. Where did they go? Did some kids just skip school?

The declining enrollment has left districts and Florida lawmakers wondering, with some suggesting that there may be even more students unaccounted for.

It worries State Rep. Randy Fine, who chairs an appropriation subcommittee that focuses on PreK-12 education. He is a Republican who represents part of Brevard County.

Fine fears that a large number of these students are not attending school at all — although school attendance is required by law based on a child’s age — and it “keeps him up at night,” he said during a committee meeting earlier this week.

Outside of the well-being of students, fewer kids enrolled complicates state funding for public schools.

Fewer kids at public schools

To be precise, enrollment dropped in 2020-21 by 67,265 students, according to the education department’s data and an analysis by the Florida Phoenix.

The most significant drops were in PreK and kindergarten enrollment. Statewide, the number of PreK kids dropped by 15,164 compared to last year, and the kindergarten enrollment dropped by 16,316.

Although most families choose to send their children to kindergarten at age 5, in Florida, compulsory schooling starts at age 6. It’s possible many parents decided that, due to the pandemic, it would be best to wait and enroll their young students later, in hopes that the COVID pandemic wanes.

Other significant declines were in third grade, which saw a drop in enrollment of 15,155 students. Third grade is a pivotal time in terms of ensuring children can read at grade level.

Fifth and sixth grade enrollment dropped by 9,696 and 8,942 respectively. First and second grades saw drops of below 7,000 kids. The middle school years are also important as a launching pad toward high school.

Some of those students might be newly home-schooled; others might have transferred to a private school; and others might have moved out of state. Some might be not attending school at all.

Further details and exact counts are not yet known and may not be known for several months.

There could be more kids not counted

This week, state education budget officials met to provide estimates mid-year for public school enrollment for the 2020-21 school year. The numbers ultimately will guide how much state money public schools will get.

The committee estimates about 88,000 fewer students compared to previous projections.

“What we don’t know, for the current year, is home-school participation and private school participation,” said Elizabeth Goodman, from the Office of Economic and Demographic Research. “We expect to have those reports in the summer of 2021,” she told the committee.

Amy Baker, coordinator for the research office, said information provided by local school districts will help drive an understanding of where these kids are.

“You can’t say that there are 88,000 ‘missing’ kids — there’s 88,000 that aren’t there that we would have expected to be there,” said Baker. “What we need to know is, where are they? How many are in private schools? How many are home-schooled? How many are truant that you already found and brought back in?”

Baker said the state will look to school districts to fill in the gaps of information, such as how many of these students chose a private school setting instead.

“We kind of flipped the process on it’s head,” she said. “We’re asking the districts what they now know.”

Moving forward

Rep. Fine with the PreK-12 appropriations subcommittee plans to make “locating” these students a top priority.

“We don’t know all the answers, but we’re going to be looking into this as a committee,” he said during the Wednesday meeting.

Fine knows that a portion of families could have chosen learning options outside of the Florida school system, but he’s worried about the students who may not be in school at all.

Fine thinks it could be an “existential threat to the state of Florida” and “that creates life changing, life altering consequences.”

“Remember there’s an e-learning option. There’s a Florida Virtual School option,” Fine said. “If I’m not putting my child in school — I think that’s child abuse.”