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Public school enrollment is down 2.3%, officials said Tuesday, with most of the drop among children in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. 

Public school enrollment in Louisiana has dropped by 2.3% – nearly 17,000 students – during the coronavirus pandemic, state officials said Tuesday.

Nearly half of the decrease is among students in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. However, drops also appeared in the number of students in grades 1-7.

"Families just aren't sending their kids to school in these lowest grades," state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said.

The issue surfaced during a committee meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which sets policy for the public schools that educate about 700,000 children.

The latest snapshot is based on the Oct. 1 headcount of students, one of two done annually. The next one takes place in February.

Brumley and others noted that the drop here mirrors national trends.

A survey done by The Associated Press and Chalkbeat showed public school enrollment is down about 2% among 33 states that responded.

Louisiana is 15th among the 33 states with a decline of 2.3%.

"We are right in line with the national number," Brumley noted.

Mississippi showed the largest decline at 4.8%. Enrollment dropped 2.89% in Texas and 1.34% in Arkansas.

The average decline is 2%, according to the survey.

Enrollment in Louisiana totals 699,625 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade for the 2020-21 school year, a decline of 16,791 students.

"Not only are we navigating school operations during a pandemic but Louisiana was also impacted by a historically active hurricane season," Brumley said in a statement that accompanied the state report.

"Public school enrollment is down across the nation, and ours would have dropped much more if not for the efforts of educators to offer meaningful instruction," he said.

"We are working with systems as they engage families and collect updated enrollment information for our second student count of the school year, which will take place in February," Brumley said. "I'm confident more families will return to our public schools when all systems safely resume face-to-face instruction."

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The Calcasieu Parish School District, which includes public schools in Lake Charles, suffered $300 million of damages when Hurricane Laura struck last year.

About 60% of public school students are attending in-person classes. The rest are relying on virtual learning or a combination of virtual and in-person instruction.

Officials said that, based on state and national reports, concern over the merits of virtual instruction is one reason for the drop in enrollment among younger students.

Worries about student safety is another factor.

Parents have reported that they were moving out of state, opting for homeschooling or moving their children to a private school.

The ranks of pre-kindergarten students is down 4,361, or 15.9%. Kindergarten enrollment is down 3,649, or 6.7%. Pre-kindergarten and kindergarten decreases account for 48% of the overall slide.

Fifth graders showed the biggest decline among the other levels, 6.1%.

Enrollment rose for students in grades 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12.

The number of 11th graders is up 5.5%, the biggest increase in the state.  

Public school operations have been in flux since March, 2020. Classrooms statewide were closed then during the early stages of the pandemic. That forced educators to rely on virtual learning amid major gaps in the number of students with access to computers or tablets and internet at home.

The 2020-21 school year has been marked by improved access to computers and internet but schools have halted traditional instruction periodically amid upticks in the coronavirus.

Holly Boffy, a BESE member who lives in Lafayette, said Louisiana's overall drop is manageable.

"This is really encouraging compared to what it could be," Boffy said.


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.