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Most NC school districts haven't regained students lost during the pandemic plunge

Nancy Pierce
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

The resumption of in-person classes this year hasn't revived enrollment in most of North Carolina's public school districts, a new state tally shows.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction posted first-month student counts for 2021-22 on Friday. It provides the first statewide snapshot of where students are now.

Last year's enrollment dropped 5% across all school districts, as most of them opened remotely. State officials said they expected a rebound this year but weren't sure how that would play out.

In the long run, declines in enrollment can cost districts state-funded teacher jobs and other public spending. So far, state officials have not cut funding based on enrollment because of the uncertainty introduced by the pandemic.

Charter schools keep growing

The latest report shows North Carolina has about 1.48 million students in all types of public schools. That's up about 1% over 2020, but remains about 3% below 2019.

Most of that growth has come from charter schools, which are independent public schools that don't report to local school boards. The state now has almost 132,000 students in charter and lab schools, which are also independent public schools. That's up 4% over last year and almost 12% over 2019.

Most districts show little or no rebound

But for most districts, the in-person rebound has been slight or nonexistent. The new report shows only 36 of 115 districts were up at least 1% over last year.

Those that stayed virtually flat included Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (down 0.1%), Union County (up 0.6%), Catawba County (down 0.6%) and Cabarrus County (up 0.7%). The "average daily membership" numbers reported by the state are slightly different from first-month totals reported by some districts earlier this month.

Wake County, the only district in the state larger than CMS, was down almost 1,200 students over last year, or 0.7%.

Some districts saw one-year gains but remain well below pre-pandemic levels. Those include Lincoln County (up 10.5% over last year but down 2.6% from 2019) and Gaston County (up 1.5% over last year but down 4.6% over 2019).

Compared with 2019, 105 districts are down at least 1%. Iredell-Statesville and Kannapolis are among those that have recovered to pre-pandemic levels. Iredell-Statesville has about 100 more students than it did in 2019, while Kannapolis is down by 34.

Private and home-school numbers aren't in

The first-month counts for public schools, which are required by the state, provide a snapshot of attendance and enrollment, which fluctuates throughout the year.

Last year, home-schooling rose 21% in North Carolina, partly because many parents of kindergarteners kept them home because they didn't want young children attending remote classes.

Private-school enrollment rose 3% in 2020. Private- and home-school totals for the current school year won't be posted until next summer.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.