Alabama public schools missing 9,800 students this year

Updated Nov 30, 2020; Posted Nov 30, 2020

School COVID
Nearly 10,000 fewer students are enrolled in Alabama public schools this year.Photo by Wilfredo Lee/AP

By Trisha Powell Crain |

About 9,800 fewer Alabama students enrolled in public schools this year, according to state officials, and Alabama isn’t sure where they went.

In the face of the pandemic, about 15,000 students did not return to their local public schools this year, said State Superintendent Eric Mackey. Of those, he said, about 5,000 shifted from a local school to one of the state’s standalone virtual schools. That’s leaves nearly 10,000 unaccounted for.

“The final number is about 9,800 students fewer are enrolled in fall 2020 than in 2019,” Mackey said, nearly twice the number of students initially reported.

The number of missing students nearly doubled from initial projections of 5,000 students shared during the Nov. 12 state school board meeting. School officials have now verified enrollment, something that wasn’t yet finished before November’s meeting, he said.

Mackey is directing local superintendents to redouble efforts to try to find the missing students. “Ninety-nine percent of our kids, we know where they are, but about 1%, we’re not certain.”

Last year’s K-12 enrollment was around 727,000 according to state enrollment data. This year’s number is just under 718,000, down 1.3 percent.

The number, known as average daily membership, or ADM, is the average student enrollment in the 20 school days following Labor Day. It is what lawmakers use to allocate state education funding.

The biggest drop in enrollment is in kindergarten. “We know we have 3,000 fewer kindergarteners in 2020 than in 2019,” he said. Whether that’s due to COVID-19 fears or the state’s declining youth population is unclear, he added. Last year, there were 55,946 kindergarteners enrolled and this year there are 52,921.

Beyond the large drop in kindergarten, he said, “That leaves us with about 7,000 kids or 1% that have left school and they’ve either gone to a private school, they’re homeschooling, they’ve moved and didn’t notify they school district, or they are simply just not in school this year.”

Tracking students down has been difficult for local school officials, he said. “We know from experience that many of these kids are undocumented immigrants, they’re homeless students. Many of these kids are transient,” he said. “They change addresses a lot, so the address they have on file is not necessarily the address where they’re living now.”

Alabama’s enrollment loss of 1.3% mirrors declines across the country, though it appears to be smaller than neighboring states like Mississippi, which has 22,000 fewer public school students this year, a 4.8% decline in enrollment.

Georgia public schools reported a 2.2% decline in enrollment across all grades according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Both Mississippi and Georgia saw large declines in kindergarten enrollment, too.

Those missing students could create a financial crisis for schools for the 2021-22 school year, Mackey said, because the state provides funding based on the number of students enrolled the previous year.

With the missing students and the students who transferred to a standalone public virtual school, the 9,800-student drop in enrollment at local schools could cost as many as 1,200 teaching jobs, said Mackey. That is unless, he said, lawmakers hold school districts harmless for the loss of students when setting funding during the legislative session, which starts in February.

“I truly believe those students will come back to us next year,” Mackey said. “Most of those 5,000 students going standalone virtual will go back to their local school and enroll.”

If schools are funded based on this year’s enrollment, schools could end up not having enough teachers to welcome back the returning students next school year.

The largest drop overall was in the elementary grades, Mackey said. The number of high school students increased from last year’s count.

The drop in kindergarten enrollment creates a unique instructional crisis for next year, he said, as important skills are taught in reading and math in kindergarten.

“When they come back, will they enroll in kindergarten as a 6-year-old or will they want to skip kindergarten—which is allowed under Alabama law—and go straight to first grade?” asked Mackey.

School officials cannot require a child be placed in kindergarten, he said, and parents can choose to place their child into the first grade without ever enrolling them in kindergarten.

Mackey said they don’t have demographic data on the missing students but are looking at that next.

Though Alabama has a state law requiring all children between the ages of six and 17 be enrolled in school, enforcement of that law is up to the juvenile courts, he said. “It’s the responsibility of the parents to make sure their children are enrolled in school,” he added.

District officials have told Mackey that students are still showing up to school for the first time, even in late October and early November, after the official count was taken during the 20 days following Labor Day.

“When they would ask ‘Where have you been?’” he said, “the answer was ‘We’ve just been home.’”

Mackey believes more could still come back during the current school year. “If there’s a vaccine,” he said, “and we see kind of an end to the fear about COVID, then we think the numbers will pick up pretty significantly.”