SL School District returns to virtual classroom, sees drop in enrollment

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SALT LAKE CITY — Students in the Salt Lake City School District finally had their first day of online-only classes Monday.

The delays came after the district was short about 6,000 devices for students to learn from home before last week’s major windstorm knocked out power to thousands of homes.

But enrollment in the district has taken a big hit since schools announced they would be online-only, which could bring a whole new set of problems beyond COVID-19.

At least 13% of their students have left. That may not sound huge, but it is enough to create big problems for Salt Lake schools. And as KSL’s Deanie Wimmer learned, it is one reason why the state is stepping in.

“I thought of all the kids, she’s the one who needs to be in class, absolutely,” said Raina Williams.

Her daughter, Alice Williams, transferred from her Salt Lake school and enrolled in the Granite School District so she could attend fifth grade classes in person.

And she was in good company — around 3,000 Salt Lake students did the same thing.

“There are a lot of implications — one will be funding, for sure,” said Salt Lake City School District spokeswoman Yandary Chatwin.

Enrollment has dropped from 23,000 to 20,000 students — a drop the district believes was largely a result of COVID-19 changes.

Recent census numbers show Utah spends about $7,600 per student. So the funding that follows those who’ve left means a loss of nearly $23 million for the district, which concerned Raina Williams.

“If they’re even going to be able to support the teachers and staff they have with so many kids leaving,” she said.

Yes, that is another implication. Since Utah’s average class size is around 24, that means Salt Lake City could have 125 too many teachers.

“With fewer students, there’s possibly a need for fewer teachers,” Chatwin said. “We’re not looking at that right now, so this isn’t meant to scare any employees or members of our community. Right now, we’re focused on getting our school year off to a great start.”

With fewer students, there’s possibly a need for fewer teachers. We’re not looking at that right now, so this isn’t meant to scare any employees or members of our community.

–Yandary Chatwin, Salt Lake City School District

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised a lot of unknowns for schools, since student funding is largely calculated on daily attendance.

It is easier when the teacher can take roll. What happens when students are learning from home? Or if a teacher has a zoom session that only lasts two hours — would that count for the entire day?

“We need to be flexible,” said Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden. “We need to make decisions based on the trends and we need to provide flexibility.”

State lawmakers in a special session relaxed standards requiring 990 hours of instruction.

They plan to hold more than one official “head count” during the school year, believing numbers will shift, based on COVID-19 developments. And the biggest change voters this election will get to decide is whether or not to amend the state constitution on how schools are funded.

“To be able to put guarantees in place around enrollment growth and an inflation factor for the WPU that schools and charter schools can depend on every year,” Millner said.

“One of the most important things, it prioritizes education funding above any other spending or discretionary spending which has never been done before in this state,” said Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper.

We’ll hear about that in the coming months. But for now, schools that are losing students are essentially on a budget notice.

“Definitely concerning to our district,” said Chatwin.

They and families are taking a leap of faith that in this unprecedented year, hoping they’ll have the resources they need.

“She’s got a great attitude about it and she’ll meet new friends and I’ll keep my fingers crossed that it goes well,” Williams said.

The first “head count” was last week. Salt Lake City School District officials will present their latest numbers to their board Tuesday.

KSL wondered if Davis District had lost students since they started a hybrid school schedule. But they won’t release their enrollment numbers for another month.

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Deanie Wimmer


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