Number of public school students dips in Delaware

In an academic year where COVID-19 looms large, Delaware has seen a decrease in public school students and a rise in homeschools.

There are 18,170 Delaware students enrolled in either a single- or multi-family homeschool or a private school — an increase of 2,439 students between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.

Single-family homeschool numbers have increased significantly: jumping from 1,602 last year to 2,663 this year, representing a change of 1,061. With that increase, there are now 1,742 more Delaware students being homeschooled (for a total of 4,512) compared to last year.

Multi-family homeschools increased much more moderately, up 32 (with 133 more Delaware students in multi-family homeschool settings), and private schools by 13, with 564 new students enrolled.

It’s the first time in at least a decade Delaware has seen a decrease in public school enrollment, with a reported reduction of 2,407 students between Sept. 30, 2019 and Nov. 13, 2020, according to data released by the Delaware Department of Education.

A vast majority of school districts and charters saw their enrollment sizes shrink, but several did see an increase. Appoquinimink School District, situated in lower New Castle County, increased by 177 students to 11,914 enrolled. Cape Henlopen School District, in Sussex, saw 32 more students added to their rosters, bringing the district to 5,892. New Castle County Vo-Tech increased by 22 students, to 4,691. And Smyrna School District climbed by one student, to 5,883. Enrollment grew for 13 charter schools.

Statewide, students in kindergarten made up the largest rates in single-family homeschools (471) and private schools (1,213) in this year’s data.

In Lake Forest, kindergarten was the most significant reduction. Last year, kindergarten enrollment was at 321. This year, that dropped to 251, said Travis Moorman, human resources director.

Usually, there is a difference between what Lake Forest anticipates the district will have for kindergarten enrollment and what they start off with, Mr. Moorman said. Families generally wait until school starts before enrolling children in kindergarten, meaning their numbers typically jump up right at the beginning of the year.

“That just didn’t happen this year,” he said. “I think parents decided to keep their kids home, either put them in a homeschool or a private school, with the intent that once things kind of go back to normal that they would put the kids back in public education. That’s what we’re counting on.”

Indian River spokesman David Maull said in analyzing the reasons for the decrease in enrollment “our available data indicates an increase in the number of students who have enrolled in private schools, an increase in the number of students who have elected homeschooling and a decline in kindergarten enrollment.”

Capital’s North Elementary School faced the steepest decline in students (a loss of 56 students), but Mary Cooke, human relations director for the district, attributed that at a November school board meeting to the school having “our most transient population.”

There’s the hope that, with circumstances optimistically returning to normal by next September, the districts and charters will see students returning to public education.

But as the district presented its figures, Capital board member Sean Christiansen noted, “The general concern is we’re in different times, like everybody knows, and we’ve done some real good things and we’ve done some things later than others. The concern would be: If they’ve left, will they come back?”

In September, homeschooling did seem like a temporary decision, at least to some.

Homeschool Delaware, a private Facebook group for homeschool families in Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland, has seen an increase in interest, Morgan Wiebke, an administrator for the group, said at the time.

The group — which has a website for those not on social media, handde.org — has approximately 2,800 members on Facebook.

While there had been a steady influx, she said it was a group of new homeschoolers than they’d seen before.

“The types of homeschoolers that we’re getting now aren’t your typical homeschoolers who are doing this for the reasons that people typically do this,” she said then. “We’re getting a lot of people who just want to homeschool temporarily until it’s safe to return to public school. So their needs are very different than the long-term homeschoolers.”

But she does think there will be families who ultimately decided to stick with homeschool.

“I’m one of those people,” she said. “Our initial intention was to homeschool for one year until my son was eligible for the gifted and talented classes that are offered in third grade typically. … We realized very quickly that this opens up a whole new lifestyle for our family, so I definitely think there are people who will realize that and stick with it.”

Staff writer Brooke Schultz can be reached at 741-8272 or bschultz@newszap.com.