Appo sees increase in enrollment as most Delaware school districts see dip

Amanda Parrish Natalia Alamdari
Middletown Transcript

After years of steady growth, Delaware public schools saw a decrease in enrollment across the state, reflecting national trends likely driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Appoquinimink School District was only one of four Delaware public school districts that did not see a decline in enrollment this year, according to attendance numbers released by the Department of Education this week. Cape Henlopen, New Castle County Vocational-Technical School District and Smyrna were the only others to not see a decrease.

Among the 19 school districts, Appoquinimink saw the highest increase of 1.5%.

Although the district saw growth, it was on a smaller scale than previous years. In 2018 and 2019, Appoquinimink saw a 4% and a 3.7% increase in student populations, respectively. Stanley Spoor, human resources director, said the smaller than normal growth is “100% attributable to COVID.”

Nationwide, a number of factors brought on by the pandemic have contributed to the widespread decrease in student enrollment. 

Most Delaware school districts started the year virtually, and struggled with online attendance. Even as school districts have scrambled to get every student a laptop or tablet, there are still pockets of children in all three counties who lack a device or internet connection.

Some families have opted for private schools, which are more likely to hold in-person classes, or have pulled their children out for homeschooling. Spoor said more than 200 Appoquinimink students have left the school district for these reasons since the start of the academic year.

Bags with school supplies sit on desks at Spring Meadow Early Childhood Center the day before students will come back to school for hybrid learning Oct. 19, 2020.

NOVEMBER COUNT:School funding depends on student attendance. How do you measure that in the middle of a pandemic?

But he expects the district will get most of those students back next year.

“My prediction quite frankly, our growth will equal or exceed our numbers over the last couple of years for next year, assuming all goes okay with the pandemic and getting everything under control,” the human resource director said.

John Marinucci, executive director of the Delaware School Boards Association, said “it’s absolutely a surprise” after the state had seen steady growth in both regular enrollment and special education enrollment during years prior.

“Most concerning is the fact that there are kids out there that we know we’re not getting to. You can’t go knock on their door and drag them to school, or sit them in front of the computer and say, ‘learn.’ Truancy is very different now than it was before COVID.”

Spoor said there are a “minimal” number of students who are unaccounted for in this way at Appoquinimink.

In a normal year, public school attendance numbers are taken through the annual unit count, which determines state funding for each school. Attendance is based on who is physically present during the week-long count at the end of September. 

But this year, measuring attendance wasn’t as straightforward. Across Delaware’s 19 school districts and 23 charter schools, attendance policies are a varied mix of Zoom attendance and assignment completion, making it harder to count the number of students "present." 

The Department of Education delayed this year’s unit count until mid-November, giving school districts a chance to settle into the new routine of virtual learning.

FROM THE SUMMER:What is school attendance in the era of virtual learning? The state is still trying to figure that out.

In Delaware, school funding and the number of teachers funded by the state are driven by the number of students in each building.

From year to year, school districts have a funding safety net to help avoid drastic staffing cuts when enrollment numbers fluctuate: In the spring, districts report estimated enrollment numbers for the upcoming school year. The state will provide funding for 98% of those students. 

Shellee Wong, Odessa High School math teacher, sanitizes desks in between classes Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.

“While that seems like quite a bit, if you take a large district, that could mean several positions,” Marinucci said. 

A sharp decrease this year could also have lasting impacts, Marinucci said. 

“The problem is that next year, we’re going to be guaranteed funding at 98% of this year’s units, which are going to be significantly lower,” Marinucci said.

Based on enrollment, Appoquinimink will receive funding for 24 additional units — or teachers — which is much lower than previous years. Spoor said the district added 45 in 2019 and 43 in 2018.

That, combined with a likely attendance increase as COVID-19 vaccinations become more available over the next year and the hope that schools could return to normal, could leave schools understaffed next school year.

BACK TO VIRTUAL:Appo schools return to virtual-only learning Dec. 7 with rise of COVID cases statewide

Spoor is confident that Appoquinimink percent increase in enrollment to replicate the past couple of years — or potentially be even higher.  

“Our growth is almost directly tied to the economy, in most years. As Middletown has more housing developments, that spurs our growth. Even with the pandemic, the economy seems to be on track, at least in the housing sector, for at least the next couple of years,” he said.