In the first full school year in the pandemic, enrollment fell across Oregon and nationally. In the 2020-2021 school year, Oregon lost more than 20,000 students, a decline of 3.73% in a state enrolling over 500,000 students.

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Prescott Elementary in Northeast Portland, Feb. 8, 2022.

Prescott Elementary in Northeast Portland, Feb. 8, 2022.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

This year, state data shows Oregon lost enrollment again, but not as much. Statewide, enrollment dropped 1.41% in 2021-2022. This data is based on an Oct. 1 student count reported by every school district in Oregon.

Some school districts even gained students, including North Clackamas, Medford and Greater Albany Public Schools.

But throughout Multnomah County, every school district continued to see student rolls shrink, all at a higher rate than the state.

“Statewide, there’s a bit of a recovery in kindergarten and first grade in particular … students haven’t necessarily come back, but other districts statewide haven’t lost additional children at grade levels,” said Charles Rynerson with the Portland State University Population Research Center, the team that works on school enrollment projections. “However, Multnomah County districts have.”

Across Portland, Gresham-Barlow, Reynolds, David Douglas, Centennial, Parkrose, Corbett and Riverdale school districts, declines ranged from 1.91% in Gresham-Barlow to 6.89% in Parkrose.

“We have seen enrollment declines over the past 5 years, and in the last 2 we have seen more,” Parkrose superintendent Michael Lopes Serrao wrote in an email to OPB. “We have lost 205 students of 3,000 in the past two school years.”

Declining enrollment can mean a lot of different things for a school district and the students who remain. When a student leaves a school district, they take state funds with them. So a decline in the number of students enrolled at a school can mean a drop in funding for the school. Yet as some schools see that trend continue through another year in the pandemic, they have access to federal funds set to help students with unfinished learning and make schools safer from COVID-19.

“We have the one-time money of ESSER [Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief] funds that can possibly reduce some cuts, but we definitely will lose staffing positions to balance our budget,” Lopes Serrao wrote in an email to OPB. He said the district is facing a shortfall of almost $3 million. “Due to our size, it’s very challenging to reduce programming for our students who need us most.”

Earlier this week, PPS officials announced reductions in staffing levels, though officials said federal and state funds helped soften the blow.

“We are seeing a decline in enrollment, and we are being prudent and thoughtful about making adjustments that … limit the overall impact, if you will, of that enrollment shift,” said PPS Chief of Staff Jonathan Garcia.

David Douglas officials say they do not intend to use ESSER funds, but the district has used funds from Oregon’s Student Success Act to help with class sizes in the past.

Both Gresham-Barlow and Riverdale school districts say they do not anticipate staffing reductions. But if student enrollment continues to fall, Gresham-Barlow officials expect a deficit between “$4 million and $6 million” that they can cover with reserves, but it’s not a sustainable solution.

“If enrollment losses persist for more than a year after the pandemic ends, we will be in the same position as our neighbors to the west,” said Gresham-Barlow officials in a statement.

While these districts range in size, declining enrollment points to a trend in Oregon’s most populous county that, for some, started before the pandemic.

Why have the students gone?

In most of these districts, enrollment has been dropping for the last five years. In David Douglas, enrollment has dropped 14.7% over the last five years, the equivalent of 1,500 students.

Looking at enrollment data, Rynerson with PSU’s research center sees an “out-migration of school-aged children” in Multnomah County.

The trend in Multnomah County mirrors national enrollment trends that show a second year of declining enrollment during the pandemic.

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“People are likely to conclude that families that are working remote are moving out to bigger homes outside of Multnomah County, and there could be some of that,” Rynerson said. “Other reasons might be that there are more private school choices in Multnomah County.”

Other families may be attending school online instead of in person. Some online programs have seen growth in the pandemic, though the number of students fell at several virtual schools in 2021-2022.

Others may have been priced out of Multnomah County as rents and housing prices have increased, Rynerson said. District officials say the same gentrification and lack of affordable housing that moved some families from Portland to the eastern edge of the county has pushed them out of the county altogether.

“There’s been a bit of a long-term trend … in some of the east Portland and east county districts,” Rynerson said.

“They gained a lot of enrollment back earlier in this century when there was a lot of displacement from closer in, but they’ve been losing enrollment even before the pandemic.”

Rynerson agrees that part of the equation is rising rents and home prices in the region.

“Every place now is unaffordable in Multnomah County,” Rynerson said.

There has also been a decline in births, both statewide and in Multnomah County, though Rynerson said the drop in Multnomah County has been steeper.

Where have the students gone?

“It’s the million-dollar question,” said PPS’ Garcia.

In announcing a projected 8% drop in enrollment earlier this week, PPS officials cited “choices families have made in the pandemic” as a reason for declining enrollment.

“There are definitely folks who didn’t want to come back in person … there are people who were like, ‘there’s too many restrictions in public schools right now, I’m going to go to private school,’” Garcia said. “Families made choices accordingly.”

In Parkrose, Supt. Lopes Serrao said 50 of the students who left this year went to online charter schools.

“Unfortunately, we did not have the funds to support an online school of our own without sacrificing class size at all levels,” Lopes Serrao said.

Nearby David Douglas did start a new online program this school year to offer a different option for students and their families, attracting 392 students this year.

David Douglas Director of Administrative Services Patt Komar said some students chose other online programs or homeschooling.

Homeschooling numbers statewide have jumped in the pandemic, from 17,971 in 2019-2020 to 30,969 in 2020-2021, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

As districts begin balancing next year’s budget later this spring, the anticipated number of students will be a big part of plans for school staffing and how to spend federal and state dollars.

District officials are also waiting to see what state school fund projections will look like next month. If there are fewer students statewide, schools could end up receiving more funding per student.

Komar anticipates an increase in per-student funding.

“All the business managers that I’ve either been in meetings with, or talked to, are down,” Komar said. “I don’t know anybody that’s got an increasing enrollment.”

Both PPS and David Douglas project another decline in enrollment for next school year.

But schools might have a little growth to look forward to, a few years from now. Rynerson at PSU says for the first time in years, preliminary birth numbers for Oregon and Multnomah County were up in 2021.

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