Attendance and enrollment plummet at Wisconsin schools during pandemic

Posted: 7:32 AM, Apr 28, 2021
Updated: 2021-04-28 19:40:35-04

There’s more fallout from the pandemic when it comes to children’s education in Wisconsin. State data shows there are 27,000 fewer students enrolled in Wisconsin schools this year compared to last.

Some of the largest school districts in southeastern Wisconsin say nearly a full year of virtual learning left them searching for students who just disappeared. Administrators say attendance and enrollment have been major problems, but none of the districts TMJ4 News spoke with could tell us how many students stopped attending school. Families say that’s an even bigger problem.

From a straight A student to failing grades almost across the board, Kita Watkins says her granddaughter’s experience with virtual learning at Milwaukee Public Schools led to devastating results.

"Virtual learning is just not for her, trust me!” she said. “It's not for her and these kids are failing. It's the worst thing that's ever happened to her and now it's to a point where she has to go inside the classroom."

While Watkins pushed her granddaughter to stick with school despite the challenges of learning through a computer screen, MPS data shows many children may have logged off for good.

MPS data shows approximately 3,200 fewer students are enrolled in school this year compared to last. The district couldn’t provide a breakdown of where those students went.

"It's concerning as a teacher,” said MPS educator Angela Harris.

Harris says there are students she hasn’t seen in several weeks either virtually or in person. She and school social workers are left trying to track them down.

“We’re calling all of the numbers we have, doing home visits and things like that,” she said. I think that one of the realities about the families that we service is a lot of our families are transient and move a lot."

It isn’t just a problem for MPS. Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction says private schools are experiencing the same trend with about 10,000 fewer students attending parochial schools this year.

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DPI data shows 9,600 more students are being homeschooled, but that still leaves around 27,000 students across the state who are unaccounted for.

Racine Unified School District says it has 1,100 fewer students this year, but that hasn’t been RUSD’s only obstacle. The district’s attendance rates dropped dramatically while in virtual mode. The number of unexcused absences increased more than 100 percent to a total of more than 183,000 days.

"I had to have really tough conversations with families,” said RUSD Elementary School Principal Ryan Samz

Samz says he knows of several students who went off the grid over the past year.

“We’re saying, ‘look, this isn't acceptable,’” he said. “‘Your child has missed 30 days of school. If we don't make a change here, we're going to have to move forward with these truancy proceedings and talk to the assistant district attorney about filing charges.’”

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RUSD high school principal Jeff Miller blames the challenges of keeping students engaged through a computer screen.

"If we have learned anything with our kids coming back in the building, proximity to our kids matters,” Miller said.

Kenosha Unified School District says it lost 1,300 students this year, the largest single year decrease the district has ever experienced.

"Unfortunately, some of the students started summer break on March 13th last year,” said Kris Keckler.

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Keckler says alternative open enrollment to other districts tripled and students switching to homeschooling increased 5-fold. But like RUSD and MPS, Kenosha Unified couldn’t share how many other students couldn’t be tracked down.

"It's sad when they completely disappear because part of this is the realization that the district can't do it all,” he said.

The state delayed required enrollment and attendance reporting from school districts during the pandemic, so DPI doesn’t have the answer either. DPI says there are 14,000 fewer students under the age of 6 enrolled in school this year. Wisconsin required children to be in school from age 6 to 18, but there are not requirements for kids to attend school until age 6.

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