First- and second-grade students play outside during recess at Village Elementary School in Gorham on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Enrollment in Maine’s public schools dropped by more than 4 percent this year, a significant decrease that comes as the coronavirus pandemic is driving more families to enroll in private school or home-school their children.

Numbers for homeschool enrollment have not yet been finalized, but to date the state has already seen an increase of more than 40 percent in home-school students. In 2019-20, about 6,880 Maine students were home-schooled, but that number is now at more than 10,100. Additionally, the state has had more than 860 students withdraw from public school to attend private schools this year, compared with about 290 last year.

A total of 180,339 students were enrolled in publicly funded schools in 2019-2020 compared with 172,474 who enrolled this year, according to the Maine Department of Education. The numbers include charter schools and a small number of publicly funded students at private schools.

Maine’s public school enrollment has been declining slowly for years, typically by no more than 1,500 or a few hundred students per year. The drop in enrollment of more than 7,800 students this year represents the biggest decline in at least the last 10 years.

“I would say (enrollment) is majorly being impacted by the pandemic,” said Steve Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Boards Association. “Initially, folks were uncertain what things would be like in the fall and would they be better by the time school started up. I think they made plans to do other things and connected with that.”

Other states are seeing the same trend. Massachusetts schools reported a decline of about 37,000, or 4 percent, this year. New Hampshire schools also reported a drop of about 4 percent statewide while Connecticut’s enrollment is down by about 15,400 students, or 3 percent.

The trend is largely being driven by an increase in families choosing to home-school or send their children to private school, as well as parents of pre-K and kindergarten students deciding to hold off on enrolling their children amid the pandemic. Only children ages 6 and older are required to attend school under state law.

Liam Kuntz, 15, peruses the novel “The Lively Lady” by Kenneth Roberts – part of his homeschool curriculum – while his mother, Gina LeDuc-Kuntz, looks on Saturday in Freeport. LeDuc-Kuntz said she decided to home-school three of her children because she was worried about inconsistency with the state’s color-coded system and changing modes of instruction. Public school enrollment in Maine is declining as more families choose to home-school or enroll their children in private schools this year. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Gina LeDuc-Kuntz, a Freeport mother of three school-age children, made the decision this summer to unenroll her children in grades 4, 7 and 10 from Regional School Unit 5 and home-school them instead. LeDuc-Kuntz said she grew nervous after the state released its red-yellow-green color advisory system in July and worried about the impact that vacillating between the different school models of in-person, hybrid and remote learning would have on her children.

“Children need stability,” LeDuc-Kuntz said. “I can’t expose them to that continual upheaval where one day we’re green, the next day it’s yellow. Tomorrow we could wake up and it’s red. It’s such a dangerous transition psychologically. I can’t allow the school that power over my kids’ mental health.

“It’s better and more stable to say, ‘This is what we’re doing right now. If the schools can figure it out in the next year, yes, you can return to school, but right now we’re not participating in this sort of instability.'”

Enrollment is a factor in the state’s school funding formula, and the declines could reduce how much money districts receive next year in what is already shaping up to be a challenging budget year.

Kelli Deveaux, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Education, said there are many variables that affect the funding formula and that the State Board of Education will consider the implications in late January. “Any conjecture or predictions on state subsidy at this time would be premature,” Deveaux said in an email.

However, some school superintendents are worried about tight budgets due to enrollment drops.

“Anybody that knows school funding is nervous right now,” said Heather Perry, superintendent in Gorham schools and chair of the Maine School Superintendents Association finance committee. Gorham has an enrollment of 2,742, down 58 students from last year.

Using the state’s current per-pupil formula, that could translate to a loss of about $450,000 in the next budget cycle, or about 1 percent of Gorham’s typical budget. But Perry said the enrollment drop also has other compounding factors, including potential losses if the students who have withdrawn belong to certain populations, such as special education or free and reduced lunch, which also bring in additional money.

Perry said she is anticipating that many of the students who chose not to enroll in public school this year will return next fall, meaning districts will have to return to a normal or greater level of services, but with less money.

Pre-K enrollment around the state took the biggest hit this year of any grade level, with the number of pre-K students declining by 1,457, or around 23 percent. Kindergarten enrollment in Maine, like other states, also saw a large decline, with about 1,600, or 12 percent, fewer students this year than last.

In Westbrook, Superintendent Peter Lancia said the district normally has three pre-K classrooms. This year there are two. There has also been a decline in kindergarten enrollment from 196 students last year to 170 this year. “We had very low enrollment during screening time,” Lancia said. “It’s the first time I’ve really heard so many families say they’re going to wait a year.”

Eliza Alexander, managing director in northern New England for the Association of Independent Schools in New England, said enrollment trends at private and independent schools this fall are varied.

“I wouldn’t say enrollment is up at this point because I’m not sure,” Alexander said. “I just know enrollment patterns are really different in independent schools this year. They’re different from last year and different from what they ever were before.”

While the state is reporting more students leaving public school to enroll in private school, private schools are also grappling with the inability to give tours and have students visit campuses. Some families are concerned about the financial burden of private school and are instead choosing to home-school. And international students may be less likely to have enrolled at private schools this fall.

“It really depends on the type of school and what’s going on with the virus in your neck of the woods,” Alexander said.

At Waynflete, a private pre-K through 12 school in Portland, Dean of Admissions Lynne Breen said the school saw demand starting to go up around April and had a spike in interest over the summer from out-of-state families wanting to come to Maine. Waynflete added about 30 students this year to bring enrollment up to around 590 students, Breen said.

Because of its small size and differences in student population, Waynflete has been able to offer families more in-person opportunities than many public schools. Grades pre-K through six are in person every day; seventh- through 12th-graders are in a hybrid model where students can come to school in person every day, but have to spend some of their time at an off-campus “hub” where the school has rented additional space to allow for social distancing.

“We’re not looking to take kids from one system or steal kids, but we offer a particular program and we want to serve the community,” Breen said. “We have good relationships with all the people in the Portland Public Schools, but we offer something a little different.

“We think the motivation for parents was, ‘It isn’t working for us to do this full hybrid. We did it in the spring and it just didn’t work well, and we want our children in school the majority of the time.’ We solved a problem for them and I think they’re happy customers.”

Enrollment at Maine’s Catholic schools is also up this year, from 2,103 last year to 2,172. Dave Guthro, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, attributed small increases at most schools to their decisions to open for in-person learning five days per week this fall. With the exception of a two-week shutdown at Saint Dominic’s Academy in Lewiston, schools have mostly stayed open but are prepared to shift to full remote learning at any time, Guthro said.

Bailey, of the Maine School Boards Association, said he thinks public school enrollment will rebound after the pandemic and as things return to normal, though it remains to be seen what the impact will be if schools start requiring COVID-19 vaccines for students.

“I think the decrease or the fewer percentage of students enrolled in schools would have been even greater if confidence was less as to whether it was safe and whether people are doing a good job,” Bailey said. “I think that’s a testament to the efforts schools have been putting in to allow families to be back at work as well as have their students enrolled in schools.”

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