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Enrollment in public schools across the state has dropped amid shift to remote learning

The shift to remote learning in many districts across the state due to the pandemic appears to have prompted some families to abandon public schools — at least for now, according to preliminary data released by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The number of children enrolled in public schools this year has dropped by more than 30,000 students statewide. Some districts have seen bigger decreases than others and kindergarten enrollment in particular declined quite a bit. State education funding is based on enrollment, so the decrease has implications for school district budgets in coming months.

Statewide, kindergarten enrollment this September fell about 14 percent compared with a year ago. Across the state, most school districts began the year with remote learning and that’s particularly hard for young kids who can’t read and need a lot of adult help to navigate online programs.

“If these trends continue, many of our districts will need to make adjustments in the short term even as they plan for booming kindergarten and first-grade classes next year,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said in a statement.

Of the 20 biggest school districts, Spokane had the largest enrollment decline at 5.9 percent. Seattle lost 611 students, or 1.2 percent, and Tacoma enrollment fell by 872 students, or 3.1 percent.

Rural districts, including Omak and Mary M. Knight, saw big increases in enrollment. Those districts offer public online schools, such as Washington Virtual Academies and Washington Connections Academy, that enroll children from anywhere in the state. Families have said they’ve opted for those schools instead of their home districts because they have established curriculum and a track record of educating children online.

Omak’s enrollment climbed 54 percent to 8,244 students and Mary M. Knight’s enrollment grew 42 percent to 2,054 students.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.