Hundreds of students have opted for homeschooling, private school or alternate online options

Parkview Learning Center students wear masks and keep social distance from each other as they leave school in November 2020.

Enrollment in ten Iron Range public school districts has dropped by more than 700 students compared to pre-COVID.

The “non-return” of students from the 2019-2020 school year to the 2020-2021 school year, is causing major concern and significant financial issues within the districts.

A total of 721 students who attended the 10 districts in 2019-2020, didn't return for the current school year, according to Minnesota Department of Education statistics as researched by the Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation in Eveleth.

“It's been a range of factors,” Noel Schmidt, Rock Ridge Public Schools superintendent said. “Some kids left school because of COVID, some have chosen to homeschool their kids, some have chosen other online options and some have just disappeared. I know it sounds strange, but we don't know where they went.”

The Rock Ridge School Board meets Monday to begin discussing next year's district budget.

“Assuming no money comes from the state and with contract settlements, we're looking at a $2 million deficit,” Schmidt said. “We will be getting $2.3 million from the second round of federal COVID relief, but that's a one-year deal. We will still have to make some budget adjustments.”

Across the Iron Range, the story is the same.

As public schools went to distance or hybrid learning and closed for periods of time, homeschooling, private schools, and online learning options, gained popularity.

That's left Iron Range public schools with fewer students. With budget deficits. And with no way of knowing how many students might return in the fall.

At Hibbing Public Schools, the district budget is looking at about a $750,000 hit, Rick Aldrich, superintendent said.

“Typically we would have 15 to 20 parents who would choose to homeschool each year,” Aldrich said. “This year, it's over 50. We also had a number of students go to VCA (Victory Christian Academy) or Assumption school. The remaining number of people chose online providers other than what we offer.”

Aldrich is recommending that the school board not reduce class offerings next year. That could lead to the loss of additional students, he said.

At the same time, he's hoping some of the students who left, return in the fall.

“These kids haven't left the area,” Aldrich said. “But they chose to leave public education. I hope they come back, but we don't know.”

In St. Louis County Schools, 81 students opted for homeschooling, Reggie Engebritson, superintendent said. Another 50 were unable to be contacted over a 15-day period, after which the state requires the district to remove the students from district enrollment.

The district is experiencing a $1.4 million loss in per pupil aid as a result, Engebritson said. A $260,000 loss in compensatory aid is also projected.

Districts receive roughly $9,000 to $10,000 per pupil from the state.

Beyond the loss of per pupil funding, districts are also losing compensatory aid from the state.

Compensatory aid is paid to districts based on the number of students signed up for free and reduced lunches.

Free and reduced lunch forms need to be completed by parents in order for a district to receive compensatory aid. The state then provides funding to districts based on completed forms.

Districts have been providing free meals throughout the pandemic with some compensation from the state.

However, many parents have not completed the forms, meaning districts are also taking a loss on free meals.

“There's a big loss from the reduction in free and reduced lunch forms,” Schmidt said. “We have sent people to houses and have made calls, but we just don't have the number of kids filling out free and reduced lunch forms as we did in the past.”

In Mountain Iron-Buhl, where Engebritson is also superintendent, a $400,000 loss in per pupil and compensatory aid is projected.

An increase in per pupil aid to all districts is needed, she said.

“Our hope is the legislature will take this seriously, look at per pupil enrollment and correct that,” Engebritson said.

Statewide, there's been an average decline of about two percent in school enrollment from last year to this year.

On the Iron Range, the decline is worse.

Chisholm lost seven percent of its enrollment, according to the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation research. St. Louis County Schools declined six percent. Rock Ridge and Mesabi East lost five percent each. Hibbing, Mountain Iron-Buhl, Nashwauk-Keewatin, Grand Rapids, and Ely, declined four percent each. Greenway lost one percent.

In addition to homeschooling, some parents across the state chose not to send their five-year-old children to kindergarten, Bob Indihar, Minnesota Rural Education Association executive director said. A big population of 11th and 12th graders also opted for post-secondary option classes, he said.

“I think those three scenarios are why most districts lost students,” Indihar said.

Across the state, enrollment decline is leaving public schools uncertain about the coming school year and facing huge deficits.

Anoka-Hennepin Schools, the state's largest district, is projecting a more than $14 million deficit, according to a Minnesota Association of School Business Officials survey. Robbinsdale Area Schools is forecasting a $4.4 million deficit; Bemidji almost $5 million; St. Cloud nearly $3 million; and Thief River Falls more than $2 million.

Of 144 districts that responded to the survey, 92 percent say 2021-2022 general fund expenditures will exceed projected revenues without additional help from the state.

“Right now, from March into April, districts are trying to figure out how many pupils they will have next year,” Indihar said. “The one thing districts are struggling with as they get into June will be to look at how many teachers to lay off. There's also a shortage of teachers, so they are going to have to figure out how to replace teachers.”

Meanwhile, home schooling across the Iron Range has seen a surge of new students.

“We had 26 active families in 2019-2020,” Elsa Norkunas, representative of Home Educators & Youth, an Iron Range homeschooling support group. “Now, we've almost doubled to 47.”

Some home school parents whose children had attended public schools, don't know where their children will attend school next fall, she said.

“They don't know yet what they're going to do,” Norkunas said. “They're waiting to see what the public school plan is.”

At Victory Christian Academy in Hibbing, enrollment is up.

“We have 103 kids,” Tessie LaLonde, principal/administrator said. “We have 25 new kids.”

At Assumption Catholic School in Hibbing, enrollment of 155 is up 10 students compared to last year, Gabe Johnson, principal said.

“It's up a little bit, but I don't really attribute it to COVID,” Johnson said. “We had a couple of families that transferred over here because they moved here.”

At Marquette Catholic School in Virginia, enrollment is 142 this year compared to 136 last year, Lisa Kvas, principal said.

“We lost some kids too, but we're still up ” Kvas said. “We added a seventh grade with 10 students and a second third grade section.”

Public school officials across the state continue to plead the budget issue to state lawmakers.

“It's being debated at the legislature how to make up those dollars,” Indihar said. “The fight the schools have is the perception that the federal government gave them money. But there were strings attached to that in that they have to spend it on PPE (personal protective equipment) and other things like that.”

Back on the Iron Range, public school officials don't know what to expect in the fall.

“It makes it more difficult because we don't know how many kids are coming back,” Schmidt said. “It's a very unusual budget year. It's a unicorn budget year.”

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