The San Francisco Unified School District is working toward returning some students to campus, but has not set a clear date for when that will occur. <ins>(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)</ins>

The San Francisco Unified School District is working toward returning some students to campus, but has not set a clear date for when that will occur. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

City schools losing students

Causes remain unclear, but some families may be leaving town altogether

San Francisco Unified School District saw a 2 percent drop in student enrollment between fall 2019 and fall 2020, the biggest year-to-year difference in a decade.

The change means SFUSD has lost 1,036 students, according to the district. In the fall 2020 semester the district counted 51,898 students across K-12, excluding charter schools, the Examiner has learned.

Transitional kindergarten, the youngest grade SFUSD serves, declined from 424 in 2019 to 386 in 2020. When combined with grades K-5, it makes for a 2.14 percent drop. Grades 6-8 saw a 2.31 percent decrease and grades 9-12 experienced a 1.55 percent drop.

The reasons for the change are unclear. Students could be switching to private schools, homeschooling or leaving town altogether.

“It’s a concern anytime there’s a dip in enrollment to understand why,” said school board member Jenny Lam. “There’s not one factor, I think. We’ve seen a combination of not only students and families, but residents of San Francisco that are choosing to relocate. The world as we know it has permanently changed.”

The district’s enrollment has hovered around 53,000 students for the past decade and previously saw a 1 percent drop down to 52,619 students in fall 2018. Enrollment may further change as a result of a new student assignment system going into effect, SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick said.

Some parents have asserted online that SFUSD enrollment has declined by 5,000 students or 10 percent. The numbers were cited from a 2019 district fact sheet stating the district had 54,452 students enrolled, compared to the 49,252 students according to a December survey about in-person learning plans.

But the number pulled from the survey doesn’t include public charters, while numbers for the state may include those students but not preschool enrollment, Dudnick said. Numbers are largely captured in October.

“The numbers that some members of the public may be referencing may not be comparing apples to apples (same data set) and therefore may not be reliable,” Dudnick said in an email. “We recognize that families prefer to have more certainty about when their child will return to in-person learning, and we look forward to welcoming students back once all of our indicators have been met.”

SFUSD did not provide a number to directly compare to enrollment cited in the survey.

Some parents have also suggested that families are leaving public schools in droves to attend private schools that have offered in-person learning. But at least some private schools are also grappling with decreasing enrollment.

The Archdiocese of San Francisco — which has up to 23,000 students in Catholic schools across San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties — has seen a 6 percent decrease in enrollment from fall 2019 to fall 2020, according to spokesperson Jan Potts. High school enrollment has remained steady.

“The primary causes are the cost,” Potts said. “People have lost their jobs, also people are moving out of the city. We are not elite private schools, we serve a great number of working-class [families].”

Archdiocese students are now offered full in-person learning and may opt for hybrid learning. Potts said that while some exposures have occurred and the individuals isolated, no coronavirus infections have been traced to the schools, which have about 12,000 students in San Francisco and is not seeing a significant gain of former public school students.

SFUSD has been planning for an in-person return, but it was indefinitely delayed last month from a previous target date of Jan. 25.

Enrollment losses will be one more obstacle for the district as it seeks to return to normal. State funding is tied to enrollment, which could exacerbate the district’s budget deficit. For now, SFUSD is focused on returning students to classrooms, improving distance learning and engaging its current families, Lam said.

“It’s important for the district to have comprehensive plans on all levels of ensuring how we will continue to deliver quality education instruction to our students,” Lam said. “We have to do everything simultaneously.”

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