The Los Altos School District’s enrollment this fall has dropped by 260 more students than administrators were expecting, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact education.

Enrollment stood at 3,669 students when the district compiled the data Aug. 20. That’s down from 3,996 last fall and also lower than the district’s projection for this school year of 3,929 students.

Since a peak of 4,670 students in 2014, enrollment has dropped each year. However, the magnitude of the drop this fall still surprised Superintendent Jeff Baier, who said he hadn’t expected it to be so steep.

“It certainly wasn’t something we were planning for, but as we look back, (given) the uncertainty, in hindsight it’s not shocking,” he said.

Although the decline is larger than he predicted, Baier said it’s in line with what other schools across the area are experiencing.

The district hasn’t yet gotten a chance to look in-depth at the reasons families left, but based on information from school secretaries and the registrar, Baier said some of the reasons parents gave include moving out of the area, returning to a home country and deciding to home-school this year. According to Baier, it’s currently unknown how many families may ultimately re-enroll.

“It’s unclear how many will be returning when this is over, whatever ‘over’ means,” Baier said. “It’s unclear how many of those are just sitting out for the current year and will be returning next year.”

Later in the school year, district staff plans to reach out to families who have left and ask about their plans for next year.

For those students who do return, Baier said the district is preparing for the fact that they will likely be at different places academically, with some potentially ahead of their peers and others who fell behind.

“There will be children at varying levels of academic progress, we know this,” he said. “It’s something we will assess for and provide a learning plan for.”

Even without the pandemic, Baier said the district is used to helping kids across a range of levels, but acknowledged that there may be a difference in scale and a greater variance among students because of the pandemic.

The switch to distance learning has led to concerns nationally that gaps in achievement may widen as wealthier parents are able to augment and personalize their children’s education in ways that aren’t within reach of lower-income families.

Certain groups of students also face particular challenges adapting to online learning, including the youngest students, those in special-education classes, English-language learners and low-income students. The district is currently seeking a waiver from the county to bring elementary schoolers in these groups back to campus.

“It’s been our concern since the spring, that this situation where children don’t get to come to school physically … has the potential to amplify those gaps,” Baier said. “We absolutely know that.”

Beyond the waiver, staff are also working to reach out to students who are disengaged and help get them back on track, Baier said.

Choosing paths

Of those families who have stayed in the district, there was also an option to select a fully remote model, which will remain online even if the district overall begins to return to campus. The virtual school is now the district’s largest elementary school, with 453 students. Another 190 junior high schoolers also selected the virtual model. Overall, roughly 18% of the students in the district are enrolled in that option.

The size of the traditional schools also varies, which was true before the pandemic as well. The largest elementary school is still Covington with 382 students, down from 564 last year, and the smallest remains Gardner Bullis at 248 students, down from 289.

Those drops are attributable both to families leaving the district and picking the virtual option. The district hasn’t yet conducted an analysis of how many students from each elementary school switched to the virtual school, Baier said.

Currently all LASD schools are learning remotely. However, the regular schools may begin returning to campus if the district’s waiver request is approved or if restrictions ease.

Every six weeks, parents can switch their children in and out of the virtual school. Although it’s not guaranteed, Baier said he believes it will be possible to place students back at their neighborhood school in the overwhelming number of cases.

As the numbers fluctuate between the two models, the district will work to reassign teachers to balance the class sizes. The drop in enrollment has left the district with a lower student-to-teacher ratio, giving more flexibility to make the switches.

The enrollment decline doesn’t directly impact the district’s budget, because rather than being funded on a per-pupil basis, LASD is largely funded by property-tax revenue. That means student numbers don’t dramatically affect the district’s funding level, Baier said. There is, however, uncertainty about how the current economic recession could ultimately impact property values.

Staffing levels are locked in place for this year but may change next year, depending on how many families return. Although district staff plan to reach out to parents in January or February about their options, the changing state of the pandemic may mean it takes more time for families to decide.