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Brennan Ortega, left, and Joey Pena, two seniors at Mission Hills High School chat during a break at school. While students have returned to in-person classes, the district's enrollment and attendance numbers are down.
Brennan Ortega, left, and Joey Pena, two seniors at Mission Hills High School chat during a break at school. While students have returned to in-person classes, the district's enrollment and attendance numbers are down. Photo by Cesar Sauceda
Cities Community News Region San Marcos

San Marcos Unified still reeling from pandemic

SAN MARCOS — Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, San Marcos Unified School District has lost more than 1,200 students, or the equivalent of an entire school, due to a variety of reasons, including family work situations, moving out of state and leaving to attend private schools, according to a recent district survey. 

After years of increased enrollment and above 90% daily attendance rates, the school district’s interim financial report shows enrollment dropped from approximately 21,000 students in 2018 (prior to COVID-19) to just under 20,000 by the end of 2020. 

Superintendent Andy Johnsen, a former administrator at Lakeside Union, told The Coast News the data shows the departures were largely related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We’ve done a couple of surveys to try to find out the answer to that question,” Johnsen said. “Because of the pandemic, many of our families had a difficult time with their work situation and had to move out of state. Other families moved to different parts of California, and some families also went to private schools for whatever family reasons they have for that. So those are kind of the three big ones that we’ve seen in our data.” 

Even when California reopened schools for hybrid learning, children across the district had to give up life on campus because of the pandemic’s severe impact on their families.

Carmen, an eighth-grader at San Marcos Middle School, recalled she was entering sixth grade when COVID-19 hit. At the time, Carmen and her fellow students were required to learn virtually from home for nine months until hybrid learning was available. But as students returned to partial in-person instruction, Carmen remained at home citing “a mix of medical and family problems at home.” 

California lost 160,000 students from public schools last year alone.
California lost 160,000 students from public schools last year alone. Courtesy graphic

“I had a grandma that had some health problems, it was related to her lungs and I had to be around because it made her not breathe that well,” Carmen said. “That made me feel sad because I couldn’t hang out with friends that much anymore. And I couldn’t see what my teachers were doing in person.” 

As a result of her family situation, Carmen and other students had to resort to continuing online courses from home. And while kids may have been better protected from the virus, the lack of social contact and in-person engagement with their peers and teachers proved a difficult barrier to learning. 

According to USA Today, students nationwide attending virtual school typically fell behind, especially low-income and minority children who were less likely to have the technology and home environment conducive for learning. For Carmen, a disruptive home environment consisting of family members and electronic devices served as a constant distraction, making remote learning a struggle. 

But despite low engagement and declining enrollment, Johnsen said the school district won’t lose state money based on student population. On the contrary, Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed providing California school districts the same amount of state funding they received prior to the pandemic to avoid harming districts for their loss of students, something called “hold harmless.” 

The governor’s plan, if approved, would start in 2023-24 and last through 2030, giving the school district a consistent source of revenue until enrollment returns to steady levels. But despite this plan, the superintendent expressed doubts the district would see many students return at the end of this year.

“We’re gonna get there in like two or three years,” Johnsen said.

According to SMUSD’s recently released financial figures in its 2021-22 Interim Report, the district’s expenditures are currently $268.4 million with general fund revenue at $264 million. If no action is taken, the district projects to be at its bare minimum of financial reserves by 2024. 

San Diego County is one of the top 10 declining public school enrollment counties in the state.
San Diego County is one of the top 10 declining public school enrollment counties in the state. Courtesy graphic

However, the school district recently announced layoffs of 97 certified staff and 50 temporary staff by next year to help cut the budget by $15 million for the 2022-23 school year. The previous year, the school board authorized preliminary layoff notices to more than 100 staff members. 

Johnsen explained the decision was inevitable since the school district spends 86% of its budget on staff. 

“We’re doing our best to look at that now and be as thoughtful as we can,” Johnsen said. “If we have to make any reductions, we’re trying to just try to make them minimal, if we can.”

While districts across the county are facing declining enrollment and daily attendance, Johnsen believes SMUSD faces a greater financial burden due to a lack of grants and funding sources, such as concentration grants, which “go to districts in which more than 55% of students are high need,” according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

“For example, Fremont and Stockton Unified School Districts are similar in size, but Stockton has a much larger share of high-need students. As a result, Stockton receives nearly $70 million more in funding.”

And despite some SMUSD schools having a higher number of students in need than others, the district has not received this particular grant.

So, how will a tighter budget impact students and teachers on a daily basis? Johnsen said they will not “notice very much difference,” noting the district aims to preserve the educational experience for its young students. 

“Our kids still want to come to school and get an education,” Johnsen said. “Our first graders only have one chance to do first grade, our middle school kids only got one chance of it. We’re looking at vacant positions that we might not feel we’re looking at any kind of non-staffing reductions. We might be able to reduce things like professional development or travel…”

The city’s push to provide more affordable housing has given the district hope of attracting more families to the area, which could result in increased student enrollment levels. However, the development is unlikely to offset declining enrollment, according to the school board and third-party demographers. 

Even so, many students are returning to campus and sense of normalcy, interacting with their peers and rediscovering the comradery shared in the halls not so long ago.

“We are an incredibly proud and tight community,” Johnsen said. “And no matter what we have to face, we’re going to do it thoughtfully. And we’ll do it together.” 

Cesar Sauceda is a senior at Mission Hills High School in San Marcos. This is his first published work as an intern reporter for The Coast News.

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