Some local schools are still recovering from big dips in enrollment associated with the pandemic

BOSTON — As kids head back to school this fall, some districts might find they have some empty seats.

Enrollment in those communities are still well below pre-pandemic levels.

“In looking at our budgeting process for this school year, we had lots and lots of conversations about enrollment,” said Linus Guillory, Ph.D., Superintendent of the Brookline Public Schools.

That’s because after soaring over the past two decades, Brookline’s enrollment fell by a lot over the course of the pandemic. It is down 12.2% which represents 964 students, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

It’s been a surprising exodus from what’s considered one of the state’s best school systems.

Dr. Guillory says the first hit came when international borders closed. “It’s our proximity and location to the medical center and the universities,” he said.

Then a second wave hit.

“We also had the local impact of parents that had to get back to work, needed the children to be in school. So, some parents at the time made the decision to home school or go to private schools,” added Dr. Guillory.

A similar story unfolded in Rockport, Wilmington, Marblehead, and Wellesley. Each of those communities saw double digit percentage declines in enrollment.

Overall, statewide public school enrollment fell more that 4% from pre-COVID-19 levels, according the DESE.

“Certainly, in the last half century, it’s not clear that there’s a precedent that’s similar to this in terms of the steep drop,” said Shaun Dougherty, Ed.D., a professor of education and policy at Boston College.

He says losing that many students has a real impact on public education. “Fewer students means less allocation from the local community and from the state government in terms of funding schools, and so less funding will have implications for staffing and other resources. . .it could force conversations about laying off staff, closing buildings, or other cost saving mechanisms.”

That’s what happened in Newton, according to the school committee’s approved budget. 12 positions were cut due to declining enrollment.

John Brown, Ed.D., an education professor at UMass-Lowell, believes students will be lured back as long as quality doesn’t erode. “Communities that support their school systems, not just financial but also in other ways, those school systems will persist, and they will continue to be high quality school systems,” he said.

Brown added, “I wouldn’t want to be an administrator right now. It’s very difficult.”

Superintendent Guillory is grateful the Brookline community’s support remains strong and that layoffs were never on the table.

But that doesn’t mean it’s been an easy stretch. Every day seems like a new lesson in math.

“In the budgeting process we had to reduce our budget,” Guillory said. “What we’re talking about impacts our children, impacts our staff. . .but what we want is to make sure that we continue producing a quality education.”

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