Both area school districts reported steep declines in student enrollment this year, with 200 fewer students attending Cabrillo Unified School District and 33 having left La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District.
Although CUSD was already on track to serve fewer students in the coming years, this year’s more dramatic losses reflect trends from across the state and nation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At CUSD, the greatest loss is at the elementary level, where 101 students did not re-enroll at the district’s four elementary schools. At a school board meeting this summer, demographer Thomas Williams projected 82 fewer students districtwide, with a loss of just 46 elementary students. His analysis did not take into account effects of COVID-19.
Superintendent Sean McPhetridge said the district doesn’t have good data as to where its students are going — be it to private schools, homeschooling or to other communities due to a move. But their numbers are on trend with the rest of the state and country, where districts big and small are seeing dramatic drops in students.
“We just don't know,” McPhetridge said. “It's certainly probably COVID-related, but it’s hard to make that causation argument. It's part of a trend in California, more than is normal, but on trend for the coming years.”
Although declining enrollment has been a threat to Cabrillo’s funding in past years, McPhetridge said he isn’t worried about the monetary effects of this year’s decline. The state is basing this year’s funding on last year’s numbers, and the district is now moving toward Basic Aid funding, which is driven by local property taxes rather than enrollment numbers. At the school level, McPhetridge said large retirement numbers and creative shuffling of employees meant fewer employees had to be laid off.
But with demographers predicting a loss of nearly 400 students over the next five years in Cabrillo, even without COVID-19 impacts, McPhetridge is making plans now — like “right-sizing” elementary schools with campus remodeling projects — to adjust to the new reality.
“The district is going to have to look at this being the new normal and keeping an eye on how declining enrollment has an impact on us,” McPhetridge said.
At LHPUSD, Superintendent Amy Wooliever has seen a loss of 33 students in total this year. The largest change occurred at Pescadero Elementary School, where 24 fewer students enrolled this year.
Wooliever said when her staff dug into the numbers, they found that 14 elementary students moved away from the community during the COVID-19 pandemic, presumably because of a lack of housing. She said many families live at the local camps, and when they closed because of the pandemic, they were forced to leave.
The other 10 come from a steep drop in kindergarten enrollment, which may represent families choosing to wait another year to start their kids in school. Like Cabrillo, LHPUSD is a Basic Aid district, meaning their funding isn’t affected by lower enrollment.
Wooliever said that, over the past few years, the district has seen slow but steady declines in enrollment, but she’s been able to adapt classes and schedules to make it work. She said the district’s new schedule, where elementary students have been broken into smaller bubble cohorts with plenty of teachers on staff, will ease their eventual in-person return.
El Granada resident Rosanna Guadagno is one local parent who made the difficult choice to change schools this year. Over the summer, she knew that a return to normal life was still far off, so she chose to re-enroll her twin seventh-graders — one of which was attending Sea Crest and the other Cunha Intermediate School — to a full-time online school where remote learning has been practiced for years. She said their new, coordinated schedules make everyone’s lives easier, and there are even opportunities for virtual community-building with their new classmates.
“This is such an overwhelming time in our lives,” Guadagno said. “Just to be able to switch to one website to manage it all is a relief.”
Guadagno said although she knows many parents in her community and across the nation are going through the same thing, her decision felt isolating. She and her kids loved their old schools and communities, but she thinks it was the right thing to do for her family.
“I can’t tell you how much they miss their soccer team and teammates,” Guadagno said. “But there is so much flux between now and then, before a return to normal. We’re keeping focused on building community today.”