CHARLESTON, W.Va. — There are nearly 9,300 fewer students in West Virginia this school year than last and the decrease could cost the public education system nearly $43 million in state funding.
The state Board of Education received the certified enrollment numbers for this school year at its monthly meeting Thursday in Charleston. Those numbers show an enrollment of 252,357 which is down 9,276 from last school year. Department of Education officials said they believe the decrease is pandemic-related but right now don’t have a clear picture on where all those students have gone.
Department of Education School Operations Officer Amy Willard said they projected an enrollment drop of nearly 3,500 students under normal circumstances because of declining birth rates and families exiting the state but no one could have predicted a pandemic-aided exodus of nearly three times the original projection.
“The hope that some of these students will come back next year when they felt safer once there’s a vaccine and COVID is under control,” Willard told the state school board.
The state said there’s a huge drop in enrollment in optional PreK programs, as much as 4,000 students. Board member Debra Sullivan said that’s the age when students need to be in school.
“Four-thousand of the very young children, when the children are the most vulnerable in their intellectual and social, emotional development–that’s a real issue,” Sullivan said.
County school system funding is based on enrollment numbers. Willard said based on the certified numbers, it would mean a decrease of roughly $42.7 million next fiscal year. Sullivan said she’s hopeful Gov. Jim Justice and leading lawmakers will consider freezing head count funding because of the pandemic.
“Maybe they would consider it for a year or two,” Sullivan said.
Board member Tom Campbell, a former delegate and former chairman of the House Education Committee, said losing $42 million would mean a cut in 500 teaching positions and 300 school service personnel.
“That’s not going to encourage people to come here because there are going to be fewer positions,” Campbell said.
Campbell said he assumes the significant loss in enrollment is due to the pandemic but there are many unanswered questions.
“We don’t know how much of the loss is due to the pandemic and the fear of the pandemic. We just don’t know,” Campbell said. “I know there’s fear. There is fear in Greenbrier County from people who say, ‘I will not send my child to school.’ They don’t care what we say they are not going to do it.”
The department said of the overall enrollment, 47,960 students are receiving instruction at home through either county-based or state-based virtual programs.