Little Rebound from Dramatic COVID Declines for Eastern Connecticut Schools

Public school enrollments along the eastern shoreline of Connecticut aren’t showing the rebounding numbers some expected after dramatic declines during the pandemic.

In a review of preliminary enrollment data for districts stretching between Guilford and New London, school officials reported generally disappointing numbers.

Last year, Guilford schools lost 154 students — nearly as many as the district lost over the previous five years combined — but gained back just 11 students this year. Old Saybrook similarly reported a gain this year of 14 students, after losing 121 students last year during the pandemic. Waterford, which lost 102 students last year, dropped an additional 61 — more than the district lost over the previous five years combined.

Lyme-Old Lyme Schools bucked that trend, reporting higher enrollments, an additional 7 students, than in October 2019.

All of these numbers reflect a long term decline in school-age population in the region, hastened by COVID losses.

Schools officials — not only in Connecticut but across the country — had been preparing for a significant influx of children held back from beginning school by parents opting instead to keep their youngest children at home for an extra year during the pandemic. Rather than soaring numbers of three, four and five year olds coming to school for the first time, however, the new class sizes are relatively normal.

Guilford’s kindergarten class increased by 63 students from October 2020 to September of this year. Its pre-k increased by 15. Those numbers still leave Guilford schools well below enrollment numbers prior to the pandemic. 

At a board of education meeting on Monday night, Guilford Superintendent Paul Freeman said he had expected higher enrollment for the kindergarten class, which totaled 217 as of September 10. 

“We seemed to have a little bit of that rebound, but not as much of the rebound as I was anticipating,” said Freeman. “I thought we would see another 240 number, and we didn’t see that.”

“To draw them in, to keep them in.” 

Old Saybrook reported a large increase in the size of it’s pre-k class — last fall, the district enrolled 49 preschoolers; this year, they have 89. The district has been piloting a universal pre-k program, which school officials hope to offer tuition-free by 2022-23. 

Jan Peruccio, superintendent of Old Saybrook Schools, said the district had increased its pre-K class size through outreach to local families.

“We came in with a huge pre-K class, and that was a concerted effort on our part,” Peruccio said at a Board of Education meeting on Tuesday.

The larger pre-K class, however, doesn’t quite make up for the graduating senior class from last year, which had 108 students. In total, the district gained 14 students this year, but enrolled 107 fewer students than in the year before the pandemic.   

Peruccio said that the district was able to offer pre-K to more families by reducing tuition. 

“This is the strategy,” she said. “To draw them in, to keep them in.” 

In Lyme-Old Lyme Schools, where overall enrollment increased, Superintendent Ian Neviaser said that he expected the number of students to grow over the course of the year, particularly in the pre-K program as children turn three and become eligible. 

Neviaser attributed the increase to the district’s promotional efforts.

“We’ve intentionally gone out and tried to recruit students from all over. That’s an effort we’ve put time and money into,” said Neviaser.  

He also said that offering in-person learning throughout the 2020-21 school year may have helped the district’s reputation.

“People are aware our students had the opportunity to be here [in-person],” said Neviaser. 

A trend of declining enrollment 

School officials in a number of districts told CT Examiner that the declines were roughly as they expected, given longer-term trends and birth rates. 

Madison and Clinton, for example, reported total enrollment declines despite enrolling pre-K and kindergarten class sizes similar to pre-pandemic levels. 

“Our enrollment numbers are exactly where we projected.  We continue to plan and budget accordingly and with projections coming in where we expected them to be, we are moving forward according to plan,” Maryann O’Donnell, superintendent of schools in Clinton explained in an email to CT Examiner.  

Waterford’s school enrollment dropped from 2,367 in October 2020 to 2,306 as of September 17. Thomas Giard III, superintendent of Waterford Public Schools, said the district’s projections were “pretty spot on” for pre-K and kindergarten enrollment numbers, which increased by 12 students. That modest increase, however, does not offset the loss of last year’s graduating class of 213 seniors. 

“Waterford typically averaged about 200 kids per grade level k-12 for many years. Grades K-5 this year average about 155 students. This is unrelated to the pandemic and is more related to the trend in CT of declining enrollment,” Giard said in an email. 

Madison Superintendent Craig Cooke echoed Giard. 

“The K and 1 levels reflect students returning and/or starting after being held out an additional year.  The upper grades reflect a decline that we expected due to a large graduating class,” said Cooke. 

In contrast to other area districts, Westbrook did not report an increase this year in its pre-K or kindergarten enrollments. Superintendent Kristina Martineau explained to CT Examiner that while the kindergarten enrollment was lower than expected, the high school enrollment was higher.

“We will be looking closely at enrollment data and trends this fall after official October 1st counts are in and we evaluate it in the context of local and state trends for the next 3-5 years,” said Martineau. 

More broadly, enrollment declines across the region may also reflect a lasting commitment by parents to homeschooling begun during the pandemic.

O’Donnell said at a Clinton Board of Education meeting on Monday that upwards of 50 students enrolled in Clinton schools left for homeschooling last year. She said that 25 had returned, although the district was still confirming its numbers.

New London numbers 

New London, unlike other districts, has not reported a long-term decline in enrollment. The district reported an overall increase of 59 students in the five years prior to last year. However, last year, the district lost 143 students. This year, despite an increase of 21 pre-K students and 49 kindergarteners, the district lost another 175 students, bringing its total enrollment numbers to 3,122. 

The overall enrollment drop is the result of large declines in 1st, 3rd, 4th, 9th and 11th grades. 

Official enrollment numbers will be published on October 1.

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