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San Elijo Elementary
According to Ed Data, student enrollment at San Elijo Elementary School in San Marcos dropped 10% compared to the same day last year. Photo via Facebook
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Student enrollment drops in San Marcos, Encinitas school districts

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dan Brendel contributed reporting to this article. 

REGION — Early data from two school districts show enrollment dropped as distance learning began, with some families opting instead for homeschooling and other education alternatives.

San Marcos Unified and Encinitas Union Elementary School Districts started the 2020-21 year with slumps in enrollment, compared to the same day last year. Previously, both relatively consistent enrollment since 2015, according to Ed-Data.

Disenrollment appears more common among younger students, as Encinitas Union’s 11% drop illustrates. This decrease stems directly from COVID-19, Assistant Superintendent Joe Dougherty said.

For San Marcos Unified, 33% of disenrollment in elementary came from the transitional kindergarten and kindergarten levels, according to Assistant Superintendent Mark Schiel.

Total enrollment in San Marcos dropped 5% year-on-year, comparing the district’s data from day three of each school year. Broken down by grade level, the district saw its largest decrease in middle school, which lost 9% enrollment compared to 2019. Elementary enrollment dipped 7%, while high school enrollment gained 1%.

Graphic by Dan Brendel

“[San Marcos Unified] takes pride in the education that we provide,” Schiel said. “We believe that our enrollment will return to normal when we are able to return to in-person instruction.”

Between the third and fifth day of the school year, San Marcos Unified added 71 elementary students (+1%), Schiel said.

Likewise, Dougherty believes enrollment in Encinitas will climb once the uncertainty of COVID-19 subsides.

But others think enrollment may not bounce back so quickly.

“Anecdotally I know a large number of parents who have chosen those other options, with many going to charters,” says Todd Maddison, an Oceanside parent and school board candidate for Oceanside Unified’s Trustee Area No. 5. “We know that once a child is moved to a different school, it is incredibly difficult to move them back — a disruption most parents would avoid.”

After San Marcos Unified’s Double Peak School moved online for this year, Jenn Loisel and her husband decided to homeschool their first and third-grade daughters instead — all while traveling across states in an RV, utilizing the outdoors as a classroom.

Loisel says they’ll settle back in San Diego when schools reopen, but San Marcos likely won’t be the district they return to.

Jenn Loisel
San Marcos residents Jenn Loisel and her husband opted to homeschool their first- and third-grade daughters while the family travels in an RV. Photo courtesy of Jenn Loisel

“It was a lot for them to sit in front of the computer for so long, then this summer, I didn’t appreciate how the district really lacked in communication,” Loisel said, citing what she perceived as the district’s poor planning for the new school year. “That’s why I took matters into my own hands and decided to homeschool this year. But it’s nerve-wracking trying to educate your own children.

“I know Double Peak has very excellent teachers and a high standard. I just want to make sure I can continue that for my kids.”

Dissatisfaction with distance learning may continue to push students to alternatives. Loisel says teachers are trying to make the best of distance learning, but if they aren’t provided proper resources and training for remote instruction, connecting with students will be all the more challenging.

If persistent, disenrollment could cause schools to lose out on revenue next year, as funding in California largely depends on enrollment. While Maddison says the effects on revenue could be significant, Schiel says it’s too early to tell.

Enrollment numbers from several other school districts will become available in the coming days.


KC September 17, 2020 at 9:46 am

I know a lot of the parents in Encinitas have left because of not have full time on campus schooling. They didn’t even consider applying for the waiver when it was an option. And now 5-10 year olds have to learn by looking at a zoom screen for 4+ hours a day. My child loved schools and now he cries every night dreading having to sit on zoom the next day. And if you ask the teachers how many kids cry on zoom every day, you’d see it’s a miserable experience. There are ways to make this work on campus, they just need to make it a priority. On board meeting calls, they always talk about how budget isn’t an issue and how lucky we are that we don’t rely on government help for funding. The board members don’t respond to emails. The parents aren’t being heard so they are leaving. The distance learning is not working!

Todd Maddison August 27, 2020 at 8:46 pm

On the impact on revenue, I would agree with Schiel that it is too early to tell. I’m sure some percentage of parents will choose to return their kids to the traditional public school after the crises has passed.

But, with total expected revenues of $215M projected for the 21-22 budget (per their 20-21 adopted budget figures), even if they cut their enrollment loss in half – from 5% to 2.5% – that’s a loss of $5.4M in revenue. Seems “significant” to me, particularly given the district was in financial difficulty even before the Covid crises.

That’s a ways off, of course, we’ll see what happens when we get closer, but I hope our districts are planning as much as they can in advance how they’re going to deal with this.

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