Fairfax County Public Schools kicked off the 2020-21 school year in September with nearly 8,900 fewer students – roughly the equivalent of four high schools – than the system had one year earlier, but officials do not plan to return any of the already-budgeted moneys to the county’s coffers just yet.
FCPS’s enrollment stood at 180,151 in September, down 8,859 (4.7 percent) from the 189,010 who were enrolled at the start of the 2019-20 school year. There were 9,701 fewer students this fall compared with the system’s end-of-the-year enrollment of 189,852 in June.
FCPS officials said enrollment figures have not been finalized and that the school system expects that some students who did not enroll this fall may return later, said FCPS spokesman Lucy Caldwell.
“Certainly we are aware that some families would make other arrangements, but we also feel that it would not be surprising for them to re-enroll when in-person [schooling] resumes,” she said. “Presently, our priority is to focus on making our schools safe and healthy environments as we begin bringing students back into school buildings and there is a significant amount of work entailed with this. That is our key focus.”
School Board member Elaine Tholen (Dranesville District) told the McLean Citizens Association Oct. 7 that FCPS is trying to retain teachers, custodians, bus drivers and other employees in anticipation of when schools reopen.
“We don’t want to have to de-staff teachers,” she said. “Every principal I’ve talked to has had conversations with families that have said, ‘Look, we’re going to be doing more homeschooling, we’re sending our kids to a private school, but as soon as you open, we’re back.’”
This fall’s enrollment decreases were steepest at the preschool-through-sixth-grade level, dropping 8 percent from 97,910 last September to 90,175 in September 2020. Enrollment declined 1.3 percent at the high-school level, dipping from 59,754 last September to 59,034 at the start of the 2020-21 school year. Middle-school (grades 7 and 8) enrollment declined negligibly from 30,074 in September 2019 to 29,816 this September.
Supervisor Patrick Herrity (R-Springfield) said fewer students in the school system should result in a budget reduction. Residents who can afford to are “literally voting with their feet and leaving the school system for in-person learning,” while others are forming “support pods” to ensure their children receive instruction, he said.
“Unfortunately, by not having a plan for optional in-person learning, the School Board and school administration are failing those that need the support the most and we will see a widening education gap that will impact education in the county for years to come,” Herrity said.
Arthur Purves, president of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance, said the school system should offset the enrollment decline with budget and staff cuts.
“Before COVID, FCPS wanted an increase of $29 million and 323 employees for 1,400 additional students,” Purves said. “Based on those numbers, we would expect FCPS to decrease spending by $173 million and 1,900 positions due to a decrease of 8,900 students.”
Fairfax County supervisors in May adopted a fiscal 2021 budget that transferred $2.14 billion for school operations, or 70 percent of FCPS’s nearly $3.06 billion operating budget. The transfer, approved after the pandemic struck, was far less than the school system had sought. FCPS now spends $16,973 per student, given the current enrollment.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay (D) said the enrollment decline did not simply equate to the school system’s needing less money. Lower enrollment numbers could result in less state funding to FCPS, necessitating further support from the county, he said.
“In a county of our size, a 5-percent change in enrollment isn’t likely concentrated to one school, grade level or part of the county, meaning it won’t directly result in lower costs through less need for teachers or classrooms,” McKay said. “We also have to consider that when schools are able to safely reopen, many families who opted for home or private schooling will likely return to FCPS.”
The enrollment decrease occurred in the wake the COVID-19 pandemic and government-mandated shutdowns. Gov. Northam in March closed schools for in-person learning through the remainder of the academic year, so FCPS switched to online distance learning.
The School Board initially considered reopening schools this fall by allowing students the option of online-only learning or a hybrid plan in which different student cohorts would attend in-person classes for two days per week engage in independent study and work on the two other days. Teachers would have had one day per week to plan and give additional support for students who needed it.
But teacher organizations protested the plan, saying it was not safe yet for in-person classes. FCPS began the new school year with online-only instruction Sept. 8, two weeks later than earlier planned. By contrast, most local private schools in the area began their fall semesters with at least some in-person classes and plenty of health precautions in place.
Herrity said he has been pressing the School Board to direct Superintendent Scott Brabrand to prepare and execute an optional plan for in-person learning as long as the county’s COVID-19 positivity rate stays below 5 percent. The plan, like the county-run Safe Return to Schools program, this plan should include well-communicated safety protocols for parents, students and teachers, he said.
“Our students, parents, teachers, Health Department, child psychologists, and the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] all say we need to get our kids back in school,” Herrity said. “To not do so is a failure in leadership.”