Fifth-grade student Jaxon Vizer works in class last month at Altoona Intermediate School. With 66 additional students this fall, the Altoona school district ranked 10th for enrollment growth among the state’s 421 school districts.

With COVID-19 shaking up the educational landscape, enrollment in Wisconsin school districts dropped 3% across the state for the 2020-21 school year, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

Driven in part by parents opting out of sending children to kindergarten, the state education agency reported 25,232 fewer students were attending public school districts this fall than last year. In total, 818,922 students were counted as attending a school district as part of an annual September tally of school children.

The drop represents a significant turn from the past five years of steadier enrollment declines when DPI has reported between 2,000 and 4,000 fewer public school students annually, or declines of less than half a percentage point each year.

In west-central Wisconsin, the Eau Claire school district posted the state’s seventh-largest enrollment decline from 2019 to 2020, with its student head count falling by 594 to 10,881, the recently released DPI report shows. The 4.88% drop follows enrollment increases of 94 in 2018 and 214 in 2019 for Wisconsin’s eighth-largest school district.

The figures include decreases of 235 students, or 25.6%, in 4K and special education programs and 38 students, or 4.7%, in kindergarten. The dip was 2.93% in grades 1-12.

District officials have said they believe COVID-19 likely caused the drop, with more Eau Claire students than predicted this year open-enrolling into other programs, including virtual schools offered by other districts.

Some families also opted to homeschool, while others enrolled in neighboring districts that offered more in-person classes during the pandemic, Kim Koller, the district’s executive director of administration, said at a recent school board meeting. Just over 80% of Eau Claire students are participating in the hybrid model in which most grades attend face-to-face classes two days each week.

The region’s other largest school district enrollment decreases this fall occurred in Hudson, down 242 students, or 4.31%, to 5,371, and Menomonie, down 204 students, or 5.99%, to 3,199, DPI reported.

The Chippewa Falls school district, where enrollment fell by 124 students, or 2.48%, to 4,882, was the only other regional district to lose more than 100 students.

Other area districts with enrollment decreases exceeding 4% include Cornell, down 17.72%; Thorp, down 10.41%; Lake Holcombe, down 9.68%; Spring Valley, down 8.18%; Colfax, down 8.1%; Neillsville, down 7.81%; Cadott, down 6.78%; Flambeau, down 6.31%; Blair-Taylor, down 6.21%; Independence, down 5.01%; Ladysmith, down 4.85%; Osseo-Fairchild, down 4.85%; Black River Falls, down 4.15%; and Mondovi, down 4.02%.

DPI school financial services director Dan Bush said the largest factor driving the drop in enrollment was a significant decline in 4K and kindergarten students, an age group that is not required to attend school like their older counterparts.

“Parents did have the option of holding their (4K and kindergarten) students back this fall,” Bush said during a press conference. “Obviously more of them did in comparison to past years.”

Dan Rossmiller, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said the drop in enrollment this year is “unquestionably” connected to the pandemic, adding the decline was both expected and surprising.

“I hope it’s a one-time thing,” he said. “I hope we conquer the virus and get back to a more normal situation.”

Defying the pattern, the Altoona school district, which gained 66 students, or 3.88%, to reach a total of 1,767 in 2020, was among just 72 of the 421 districts statewide that saw a year-over-year increase in enrollment, the DPI figures show. During the pandemic, Altoona students from 4K through fifth grade attend face-to-face classes four days a week, while students from grades six through 12 go two days a week.

Business manager Mike Markgren said the district has enjoyed steady growth for the past several years that has coincided with population growth in the community, a trend that accelerated this year with a surge in residential housing development.

“It helps with revenue as well,” Markgren said, referring to the connection between enrollment and school funding.

Altoona’s enrollment boost would have been even bigger without a decrease of 43 students, or 37.39%, in its 4K/special education programs this year, Markgren noted.

St. Croix Central school district was the only west-central Wisconsin district to post larger increases, adding 128 students, or 7.19%, for total enrollment of 1,908. Altoona and St. Croix Central ranked in the top 10 statewide for number of students added.

Other regional districts expanding enrollment included Durand-Arkansaw with 23 more students and Elk Mound with 10.

DPI’s parental education options director Chanell Crawford said private schools participating in voucher programs also experienced a decline in 4K but increases in kindergarten enrollment as well as grades 1-12. However, those increases were lower than recent years.

“We’re seeing some of the same trends in the private school choice program,” Crawford said, referring to programs that provide taxpayer subsidies known as vouchers to income-eligible children to attend private schools.

While DPI has enrollment figures on the voucher programs, the education agency won’t have overall private school enrollment numbers or homeschooling figures for a few weeks as those options have later reporting deadlines.

The public school enrollment drop could have a “lasting impact” on how much money districts get, Rossmiller said.

A district’s membership, which includes the annual fall student tally and summer school figures, is used to set state-mandated revenue limits and determine how much per pupil aid a school system is eligible to receive.

Membership counts are calculated using rolling three-year enrollment averages and included in a formula to dole out the state’s largest pot of money known as equalization aid.

A drop in enrollment this year — even if restored the next year — could affect how much money districts are eligible to raise from property taxes or receive in equalization aid, Rossmiller said.

“It’s going to have a lasting impact on school district finances,” Rossmiller said, adding his organization is supporting legislation that would hold districts harmless to the enrollment drops experienced this year.

Copyright 2020 Tribune Content Agency.