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Newton’s public school enrollment declines amid pandemic

Enrollment at Newton Public Schools is the lowest it’s been in nearly a decade, according to a review of school records, and officials say much of the decline likely is due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ruth Goldman, chair of the Newton School Committee, said it is hard to know if these numbers are temporary or part of a trend.

“Declining enrollment is not something any school district wishes on itself,” Goldman wrote in an email. “Honestly, it just makes planning that much more difficult, but it’s too early to say it’s really a predictor of the future.”

Enrollment drops could impact how much funding the district receives from the state and federal governments, said Liam Hurley, assistant superintendent and chief financial and administrative officer, at a School Committee meeting Oct. 19. He said it depends on whether or not students who didn’t enroll this year will return next year.

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“Money follows the students, so if you have less students, it is potentially, down the road, to be less money,” Hurley said at the meeting. “It is too early for me to guess what is going to happen there, but it is certainly something that I think everybody has got to be looking at.”

Last year school officials estimated that 12,596 students would be in Newton Public Schools for the 2020-2021 school year, but only 11,925 students ended up enrolling — about 5 percent less than expected. A preliminary October 2020 report states that most of this decrease “is likely related to the current health conditions due to COVID-19.”

The estimated total for 2020-2021 is the lowest since 2011-2012, when 11,922 students were enrolled in the Newton Public Schools, according to district data.

At the meeting, school officials unanimously voted to approve the budget distribution plan for Newton Public Schools for the next five years. The plan includes reallocations due to the pandemic, but the School Committee will review it twice a year, and it might change depending on the city’s financial situation.

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“Due to the financial impact of COVID-19 on City finances, all major capital building projects have been put on hold, except for the Oak Hill Classroom Addition project, which is scheduled to be completed for the fall of 2021,” according to the plan.

Because the expected number of graduating seniors in high school this year was predicted to be larger than the sum of new kindergarten students and families moving into the district, public schools' enrollment already was projected to decrease by 15 students this year, according to a 2019 report, but preliminary numbers showed a decrease of 686 students.

All grades except middle school had a drop in enrollment this year — kindergarten had the smallest group of students since 1984, which according to the enrollment report indicates some parents are opting to keep young children in preschool for another year, homeschool them, or enroll them in private kindergarten.

Newton’s School Committee members asked for more detailed information on why students from other grades opted not to enroll in the city public schools, and Margaret Albright, a committee member, said district data officials will report back at the Committee’s next meeting Nov. 2.

Newton’s 2020 Enrollment Analysis Report, a more detailed document about the city’s school enrollments, will be out by the end of the year, but Katy Hogue, director of data analysis and enrollment planning, said the city’s official enrollment numbers are unlikely to have major changes.

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“It’s possible that the number might decrease slightly, but typically that’s only two or three students,” Hogue said.

During public comment at the School Committee meeting, some Newton parents said they were concerned about the city’s Distance Learning Academy and hybrid models. They said their children are isolated, overwhelmed, neglected, aren’t learning enough, or aren’t getting enough in-person hours at school.

Ruth Goldman said it has been a struggle to get younger children the supplies and enable emotional connection in both hybrid and DLA learning, but the city is working to address those issues.

Newton Public Schools created a working group after it set aside a “Return to Learn Blueprint” due to concerns about safety and equity in learning, and it’s scheduled to present a plan to the committee Dec. 2.

When asked by a fellow committee member if members of the High School Working Group could accelerate their work, Emily Prenner, the school committee representative in the group, said they need to take time to consider all possible issues and come up with creative solutions before they can present a plan.

“It is truly a really tight, compact timeline as it is, and I feel like we would be doing a disservice for us to make it any shorter,” Prenner said at the meeting. “I feel like we would run into similar issues that we would possibly have run into in the summer, and I want to make sure that we are thoughtful and deliberate.”

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Matthew Miller, a committee member, said he thinks the “tight timeline” might have been avoided if the district and working group had spent more time during the summer to create a successful plan.

“I ultimately feel that the district did not spend enough time working within this group to create a plan that would achieve buy-in from key stakeholders and roll out successfully,” Miller said in an email. “The district no longer has the luxury of long summer days. It is time to consider outside of the box ideas such as hiring a consultant to help speed up the process or expanding the group to divide the work.”

Goldman said the district is working hard and asked the public for understanding.

“No one is satisfied, people’s fuses are short, so no one is being exactly patient or kind about it,” Goldman said in an interview. “I don’t think the Newton Public Schools faculty and administration has ever worked this hard in their entire lives.”

Isabela Rocha can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.