SALT LAKE CITY — Some 9,000 fewer students are attending Utah schools this fall than projections anticipated, but some educators say the numbers are in flux and some students may still return to classrooms this academic year.
"This is extremely alarming to me, having our students just disappear," said Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, who is a public schoolteacher.
Riebe said there are students who attended her school "year after year and now they're in fifth grade and they're just nowhere to be found. ... No one's inquired about their records and so if no one's asking about the records, they're just not attending school."
The dropping attendance is one reason the Utah State Board of Education has asked schools to conduct multiple head counts this year. Accurate enrollment figures are critical because most state school funding formulas are based on student numbers. The next planned count is in January.
"Unofficial" fall numbers, according to a Sept. 9 head count, indicates Utah's total public school enrollment fell by 2,150 students compared to last year, dropping from 667,940 to 665,790. The state's official Oct. 1 headcount is still being calculated.
The Sept. 9 snapshot provides some indication of trends, however. Most of the enrollment loss appears to be in district schools, with some shifting to public charter schools and among them, charters that solely offer online instruction. However, charter school enrollment fell 654 students below projections, too.
"It doesn't seem to explain the entire loss in the district enrollment side, which indicates there's a core of students out there that aren't engaging in the public system at this point," Legislative Fiscal Analyst finance manager Benjamin Leishman told a committee of lawmakers Monday.
Multiple factors may be at play, Leishman told members of the Utah Legislature's Education Appropriations Subcommittee. It appears a significant number of parents have opted not to enroll their children in kindergarten. Increased home-school or private-school participation may be a factor. Fewer families may have moved to Utah than anticipated.
Riebe questioned what steps are being taken to "recapture these kids or assist them in finding a solution that works for them. For them not to be receiving an education, is really concerning to me."
Leishman said he is aware of some school districts, the Salt Lake School District for one, where educators "were actively going out and trying to find those kids that they knew were enrolled in the prior year and hadn't engaged this year."
Salt Lake City School District's enrollment is down about 7% from fall 2019, with the largest drop in elementary schools, down 14.2% year to year. The district's high schools — East, Highland and West — had a collective increase of 1% while enrollment at its middle schools fell by about 4%, according to school board documents.
The district has had declining enrollment in recent years, but not more than 2% in a single year.
Riebe said more must be done to get students back in school or engaged in online learning.
Some district educators who have gone to students' homes and knocked on their doors to find out why they aren't attending school have learned some children are providing child care for other family members while adults in the home work, she said.
"I understand some of our families are really struggling right now and these kids are trying to keep it together, but it is really alarming when you hear these stories and the disengagement with our education system," she said.
"Hopefully we can engage these kids again once we figure out how to do that better," she said.