By Maya Pottiger, Word in Black and Stephen Magagnini, OBSERVER Editor-In-Chief

(WORDINBLACK.COM) – California and Sacramento have not been immune to the drop-off in public school enrollment during COVID-19, especially among kindergarteners, a Word in Black analysis shows.

While public schools in general have lost some enrollment, California’s kindergartens show the steepest decline. There was a 12% drop in enrollment from the 2019-2020 school year into the current 2020-2021 school year. Black students have the sharpest decline in kindergarten enrollment, decreasing 20% during this school year after only 4% from 2018-2019 into 2019-2020. White student enrollment decreased 17% in the current school year.

In Sacramento County, overall public school enrollment has remained constant from  2018-2019 through 2020-2021. There was a 1% increase in enrollment from 2018-2019 to 2019-2020, followed by a 1% decrease from 2019-20 to 2020-2021, when remote learning kicked in.

Across all three school years, Asian students are the only student group that is steadily increasing enrollment, up 9% since the 2018-2019 school year. Black and White students have continuously decreased in enrollment since then, and Hispanic/Latino students decreased in enrollment from 2019-2020 to date after an increase in the previous school year.

 Some 28,000 Black students enrolled in Sacramento County public schools in 2018-19, while two years later only 26,600 Black students are enrolled.

White students have declined at a sharper rate. The Black student population has decreased 5% since the 2018-2019 school year, while the White student population has decreased 7%.

Sacramento County’s done a little better than the rest of California.  In the 2018-2019 school year, California public school enrollment has steadily decreased, now down 3% in the 2020-2021 school year. Statewide, the Asian student population hasn’t fluctuated over the last three school years, while Black student enrollment is down 7% and White student enrollment is down 8%.

A greater percentage of White students have been leaving public school than any other race, especially in early education, a Word in Black examination of trends in California, Michigan, Texas, Georgia and Washington revealed.

Experts offer a number of explanations: White parents can better afford private tutors, schools or daycare; some of those parents may be able to keep their children at home without a major disruption in their work schedules.

“This is a conversation that’s always happening pre-COVID,” Sylvia Simms, an education advocate who runs Parent Power, told radio station WHYY in Philadelphia. “It’s still about the haves and the have-nots. If you have the resources and the money to go to a better neighborhood, go to a different district, you are able to do these things. If you cannot, you’re stuck.”

Locally, the pandemic has disrupted education on multiple levels. The Elk Grove Unified School District, with the largest Black student population in the region, has been fighting hard to keep students going to school even as enrollment drops. In 2018-2019, the district’s 67,325 students had an average daily attendance of 95.8% while 11.5% were chronically absent, attending 90% or less of their scheduled days.  So far in the 2020-2021 school year, enrollment has dropped to 66,040 students, while 9.91% attended 90% or less of their scheduled days and 1.17% attended only 40% or less. Those students who are missing more than half the time represent about 772 students, 500 more than the last school year pre-Covid. 

EGUSD Director of Communications Xanthi Soriano said school site administrators “have been reaching out to these students to find ways to connect with them and engage them. We have been providing Chromebooks and hot spots to those in need and trying to help families who have limited resources find financial assistance either through our SAFE Centers which serve our most needy, or FACE (Family And Community Engagement) office.”

Soriano said district officials saw a drop of about 300 students in kindergarten enrollment. “There was a complicated schedule for parents, since kindergarten only goes for half a day so some parents opted to keep them home. We are training your first and second grade teachers to prepare for students that may have missed kindergarten,” she said.

Elk Grove didn’t break down the drop in enrollment or daily attendance by race, but Faye Kennedy of the volunteer Black Parallel School Board, which advocates for Black families and educators, said Blacks are often most impacted by COVID-19. Historically, she said, Black families haven’t had the best relationship with school districts that some felt marginalized them and didn’t provide urban schools with equal resources.

“The relationship a lot of Black parents had with some districts, including Sac Unified, was never positive.” Ms. Kennedy said. When the challenges posed by the pandemic hit, it exacerbated tension in the relationship, “so for a lot of Black parents and poor parents, the pandemic really impacted their lives. Many poor Black parents can’t work from home and even if they could, some didn’t have access to the technology for themselves or their children.”

The Black Parallel School Board had been telling schools for years they needed to ensure children had access to the technology “and not just provide them the Chromebooks, but the local school district didn’t do it and when COVID hit, you have a quiet storm happening in Black and poor households,” Ms. Kennedy said. “Parents were given Chromebooks and didn’t know how to download the necessary software and couldn’t even help their children. Many were left trying to contact teachers by phone or email, and some parents hadn’t used email.”

Many schools were unprepared to provide the technical help necessary, vaccines weren’t easy to get and “a lot of parents said `screw this,’ literally and figuratively, and their kids had to figure it out on their own,” Ms. Kennedy said. “The internet is expensive, most people have at least two children, and if the schools gave them low-cost internet, two people couldn’t access the internet at the same time and someone would get kicked off. People with money could buy a hotspot, but when you’re poor you don’t have that discretionary money.”

Some Black families have actually benefited from the pandemic because their kids feel safer at home than they do in school, Ms. Kennedy said, especially if the school is “hostile toward any child that’s different. 

“If people have a choice they want their child to be in a safe living environment where they don’t have to deal with inappropriate comments about their race or neighborhood or being poor. I suspect those parents have the resources to navigate the internet. 

“It’s almost like a double-edged sword,” Ms. Kennedy said. “Poor Black and brown parents have to make tough decisions. It’s not always guaranteed that when you send your child to school in California they’re going to get the best education, unfortunately that’s the reality.”

When the California Department of Education announced the state’s enrollment decline in April, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said in a statement his agency will redouble its efforts to work with school leaders to gain a deeper understanding of the reasons behind the drop, while helping school districts bolster effective student and family engagement strategies in the weeks and months ahead.

“In a year that has been so challenging for educators, students, and families, it is concerning to see this decrease, especially those in our youngest grades,” Thurmond said. “While there are many reasons to stay optimistic that enrollment will rebound as conditions improve, allowing more schools to safely return to in-person instruction, we also must help schools identify opportunities to engage with families who either sought new options for their students during the pandemic or need additional resources and support to connect with school and succeed.”

The good news is that while enrollment is usually tied to state education funds at a rate of up to $10,000 per student or more, school districts won’t lose money due to falling enrollment through the 2021-2022 school year.

Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.