School buses parked in the Salem-Keizer School District lot on Hawthorne Avenue (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

More than 6,000 Oregon families opted not to enroll their children in public kindergarten this fall, driving a statewide 4% decline in overall public school enrollment compared to 2019.

The data, released last week by the Oregon Department of Education, shows substantial enrollment declines in all of Oregon’s largest school districts. That includes Salem-Keizer, which went from 41,770 students in the fall of 2019 to 39,892 in October 2020, a 4.5% drop.

Education officials say the drops reflect the difficulties of online school, particularly for younger students. Nearly all Oregon public school students have been attending classes online since Gov. Kate Brown ordered schools to close last March.

“It’s a symptom of the pandemic more than anything else, and the inability to have that in-person instruction, plus the activities that go along with in person instruction,” said Jim Green, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association and a former Salem-Keizer School Board director.

In Salem and statewide, kindergarteners are the largest share of the decrease by far. Salem-Keizer reported 500 fewer kindergarten students in October compared to the previous year, more than one-quarter of the total decline.

Oregon’s kindergarten enrollment has been increasing slightly for the past five years, with about 42,000 students statewide. In a normal year, Oregon would expect to add between 100 and 300 kindergarten students, said Marc Siegel, education department spokesman.

Public schools around the U.S. have recorded similar enrollment drops, particularly for kindergarten students.

Oregon’s funding to public schools is based largely on enrollment numbers. But the education department said the drop won’t have significant funding impacts for now because state school funding for the year has been set.

“The funding distribution formula is flexible enough to accommodate this decline without significantly impacting dollars needed to support Oregon’s students,” the education department said in a news release.

That could change if enrollment drops persist once districts resume in-person school, or if some districts recover students while others don’t.

As public school enrollment has fallen, the number of local families homeschooling kids has soared. In the fall of 2019, the Willamette Educational Service District had 4,533 homeschooling students recorded. By early September of 2020, that number was up to 5,932, spokesman Michael Clark said.

Salem-Keizer spokesman Aaron Harada said Salem-Keizer has added back some students since the data was collected in the fall, with 49 new kindergarten students as of Feb. 2.

Green said he expects the drop will be temporary, and most families will return to public schools once they reopen for more normal classes, though some will likely choose to remain online.

“People are going to vote with their feet,” he said. “I think you’ll see a significant portion of those students re-enroll.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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