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Editorial: School enrollment drop worrisome

No sector of Hawaii life remains immune to the ravages of COVID-19 — not hospitals, not hotels, not dining nor retail businesses. And certainly not the schools, which continue their struggles to recover in-person learning amid constant safety and vaccination protocols, ongoing teacher shortages and declining enrollment.

It’s the latter concern that came into sharp focus last week, as the state Department of Education (DOE) released its figures on decreasing enrollment, another significant drop for two consecutive years. This year’s statewide enrollment saw 3,000-plus fewer students compared with the start of last school year, a 1.7% decline. Combined with the previous year’s enrollment drop, indications are that Hawaii’s public schools have lost nearly 8,000 students since 2019-2020; COVID-19 shutdowns began here in March 2020.

This year’s 171,600 students in public and charter schools, is a drop from the 174,704 at this time last year; excluding charter schools, DOE schools enrolled 159,503 this year, compared with 162,491 last year.

It’s a trend seen nationwide as public schools saw a 3% enrollment decline last year, much of it due to the pandemic. Fears of coronavirus spread have spurred families to leave traditional schooling for more-flexible charter schools and homeschooling. Data shows Hawaii’s homeschooling rate rose last school year over the previous, to 8.1% from 4.5%.

Of immediate concern is the fate of those 8,000 or so keiki no longer in the public-school system. The best hope is that they have indeed migrated into nontraditional or innovative educational settings; guardians of homeschooled kids must remember that a form must be sent to the state as well as annual progress reports. But the fear is that too many of the disenrolled youth have simply checked out from further education, without much support and skills to prepare them for adulthood.

The pandemic has shown just how vital public schools are to many families. On many practical levels, the schools are hubs for stability that comes with routine, guidance and two square meals — and in some cases, are safe havens amid dysfunctional, even abusive, home lives.

It should be a point of pride that Hawaii’s DOE didn’t falter when it came to feeding keiki who needed extra help during pandemic hard times. Thanks to a nationwide waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), all students at Hawaii’s 257 public schools can receive free breakfasts and lunches daily for this entire 2021-22 school year. Free meals also were distributed in the summer.

As for the schools, enrollments matter. The numbers impact funding that the DOE as a whole, and schools individually, receive per student in the state’s complex budgeting process. The crucial weighted student formula (WSF) is based on enrollment numbers, with each student’s needs “weighted” to estimate the cost of his/her education. In 2020-21 projections, for instance, each student’s WSF started at about $4,500 — and based on his/her situation, conditions such as poverty, English as a second language or being gifted/talented are additionally “weighted” to seek more funds for resources, affecting each school’s overall budget.

To be sure, ensuring safe, quality learning environments for students and faculty has been all-consuming as DOE remains rightly committed to in-person classes, after a tough 2020-21 year of mostly distance- learning.

So far, the DOE’s multilayered approach of protocols seems to be keeping campuses relatively safe against COVID-19 outbreaks. As required under new state law, more-detailed disclosure of cases are posted (see bit.ly/hidoe-covid-updates). As of July 1, a cumulative 2,154 cases have been reported, out of 200,000 students and employees. For the most part, cases have been traced back to transmissions from outside the schools.

Stringent campus protocols must continue, including cohorting, distancing, hand hygiene, improved ventilation and, of course, masking. Fortunately, Hawaii has not seen the type of foolish anti-masking attitudes in schools that have occurred in mainland areas such as Central Texas, where schools closed temporarily after two teachers died.

Another huge step toward safety has been mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for faculty and staff, or else weekly testing at the employee’s expense. On-campus vaccination clinics also should continue for employees and eligible older students and their families. Indeed, the value of vaccinations is an important lesson that can be shared on our school campuses.

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