The public school divisions in Shenandoah and Warren counties have seen a decline in enrollment this year.

Shenandoah County Public Schools Superintendent Mark Johnston said enrollment is down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s enrollment is 5,814 students. Last year it was 6,058.

“Enrollment has been a topic of broad concern across school divisions throughout the commonwealth with a lot of discussion and attention to the matter,” Johnston said. “... Because approximately 55% of our funding comes from the state, this is a concerning decrease.

“While we were conservative in budgeting this year due to COVID and the anticipation of losses of sales tax and lottery revenues, we’ll need to stay vigilant. The decreases are being experienced all over Virginia. While I would like the numbers to be higher, I’m pleased that our drop is not as large as many.”

Johnston said the drop in enrollment is due to a mix of what other options parents have chosen.

“We saw an uptick in parents who opted to homeschool their children, some who decided not to participate in kindergarten, some who enrolled in private schools. While we are concerned and we hope to get students back, we have been good stewards of our budget resources and I anticipate that changes can be accommodated.”

Johnston said he is hopeful that legislation at the General Assembly in January will provide the schools with some help.

“Our situation, and that of other school divisions in Virginia, would be helped by legislation anticipated by the state in the next legislative session in January that there would be consideration for a hold-harmless provision for drops in enrollment,” Johnston said. “We certainly would support that given that we still have to staff our schools with teachers to teach our students, employ our bus drivers to drive our students, food service, custodial service, maintain our facilities and meet and complete all of the administrative functions that are still in full force.”

Enrollment in Warren County Public Schools fell short of division estimates used to create the fiscal 2021 budget, according to figures provided by Superintendent Chris Ballenger last week. The division recorded 4,984 students enrolled as of Sept. 30, Ballenger reported to the School Board at its Oct. 7 meeting.

“So that’s a little bit shy of what we budgeted but that’s where we landed,” Ballenger said at the board meeting. “We were able to capture those students that we had not made contact with on the first day of school so that did push us up there a little bit.”

The school division will send its official enrollment count to the Virginia Department of Education today, Ballenger said by phone earlier this week. The figure provided to the School Board last week came from individual schools that reported their numbers to the administrative office, Ballenger said.

“This year, we basically took attendance every single day just to make sure we had all of our students,” he said.

The school division’s budget assumes that 5,202 students would enroll this year, Ballenger said. A difference of 218 students could affect how much money the division receives from the state. However, Warren County school officials won’t know how or if a lower enrollment figure will affect the state allocation until the Virginia General Assembly acts. Legislators could decide to hold school divisions harmless and rely on the previous years enrollment figures, Ballenger said.

“It’s kind of a waiting game right now,” Ballenger said. “If our number holds true at 4,984 versus the 5,202, we would be looking at – could be looking at a million dollars in a reduction in funding.

“You’ve got schools all over, I mean, every school’s experiencing that,” Ballenger said.

School divisions report enrollment figures as of Sept. 30 each year to the Virginia Department of Education. That department uses the numbers to calculate how much funding divisions can receive that fiscal year.

Warren County school officials attribute the enrollment drop to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ballenger said, noting enrollment had been climbing until this year.

“I’m sure this pandemic has a big hand in that (decrease),” Ballenger said. “Of course, parents are their children’s first educators. They always have the right to put their children wherever they feel best.”

Each year, some parents choose to homeschool their children or enroll them in other schools. The division also loses some students who move out of the county, Ballenger said.

“There are a lot of things that have played into this,” he added. “But I would say that the current situation that we’re in with COVID-19 is definitely a major player.”

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