The recent availability of a COVID-19 vaccine for children as young as 5 may help San Antonio school districts boost their dwindling student enrollment populations that have been hampered by the pandemic, school officials said.

The coronavirus pandemic is still impacting school enrollment, with the largest drops in pre-K and kindergarten, grades Texas students are not required to attend. But this school year, it isn’t just the safety of schools that is driving families to remove children from public schools but the politics of the pandemic as well.

During recent school board meetings, people have chastised trustees and threatened to pull their children from the districts for mandating masks and offering COVID-19 vaccines to students and staff. About a dozen people attended last week’s San Antonio Independent School District board meeting to protest its mask mandate and accuse the school system of teaching critical race theory.

“I did get calls from people living in other school districts saying, ‘Do you have a mask mandate? We want to come to your school, because my school district doesn’t have a mask mandate,’” said Patricia Baumer, executive director of SAISD’s Office of Access and Enrollment Services. “But it also goes the other way. There were people who were not happy that SAISD said kids will wear masks to school, and they chose a different school.”

Since the start of the pandemic last year, SAISD reported it has lost about 3,500 students, while North East ISD has lost about 4,800 since the end of the 2019-20 school year. In Northside ISD, San Antonio’s largest school district, almost 6,000 fewer students have enrolled in the same time period, while KIPP Texas-San Antonio’s enrollment has hovered around 3,600. The declines mean a loss of state funding, which is primarily based on average daily attendance.

It's unclear how many students have withdrawn from public schools for political reasons because officials don't have a way to track that data yet. Families do not have to report why they withdraw students, and state student transfer reports do not show how many students switched to private and homeschool alternatives.

Alex Vardell, North East ISD's director of performance and planning, agreed that the "increase in the politicization of public school" appears to be steering some students to homeschool options, but he said the district's mask mandate, which is no longer in effect, did not have a noticeable effect on enrollment.

School politics also seeped into the Virginia governor's race earlier this month. In his successful campaign for governor, Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, campaigned against the teaching of critical race theory and the state's closing of schools early in the pandemic. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Texas Education Agency on Nov. 10 to investigate criminal activity related to "the availability of pornography" in public schools — the latest salvo in state Republicans' crusade against books in public schools that discuss topics like racism and sexuality.

It likely will take several months before schools see whether the availability of a COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5-11 makes a significant difference in student enrollment. The doses are given three weeks apart, and children become fully vaccinated two weeks after they receive their second dose. Schools are trying to get as many students vaccinated as possible before winter break.

The enrollment declines are concerning for public schools because the state funds them primarily based on average daily attendance, which is lower if the student population has shrunk. While NISD is waiting until next semester to evaluate its enrollment decline, SAISD and NEISD have estimated they would not receive millions in state funding based on current enrollment numbers.

"There are still variables at play," Barry Perez, NISD spokesman, said. "For example, we may see an increase in enrollment and attendance after the new year with greater access to the vaccine for younger students."

In SAISD, many families with students too young to get vaccinated have kept their children at home, but now that a vaccine is available, administrators have started contacting those families to help them get their children vaccinated, Baumer said.

Since the onset of the pandemic, SAISD has lost about 3,500 students, Deputy Chief Financial Officer Dottie Carreon said at last week's board meeting. Most of the roughly 2,500 students the district lost in 2020-21 were in early elementary school grades. About 1,300 fewer students enrolled in pre-K and kindergarten, while 400 fewer students enrolled in grades 1-5.

SAISD expected to regain about 1,500 students and hit a 93% attendance rate this school year, and built its budget around those figures. The loss of 2,500 students will cost the district about $23.5 million in state revenue, while the lower attendance rate — averaging about 85% — will cost about $27 million, Chief Financial Officer Larry Garza said at the meeting.

NEISD, the area's second-largest district, expected to gain about 1,200 students this school year, but instead it lost 1,800 students, district spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor said. If NEISD had regained the 1,200 students, it would have generated $19.5 million more in state revenue. The district will make up for the shortfall through staff vacancies and other budget measures.

Kindergartners at KIPP Camino work on phonics taught by Jennifer Medellin on Thursday.
Enrollment at KIPP has remained steady during the pandemic. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

At KIPP Texas-San Antonio, the charter school network hasn't seen as drastic a decline in enrollment as traditional public school systems, Regional Superintendent Allen Smith said. KIPP's enrollment decreased by about 40 students from the 2020-21 school year to this school year. Smith attributes the relatively steady enrollment during the pandemic to the charter school's "robust recruiting efforts." Charter schools must build their student bodies, whereas traditional public schools typically draw their student populations from their geographic boundaries.

“Regardless of where charter schools are located, they are still constantly recruiting for their program, so you see a little bit different focus than a traditional public school system," he said.

Smith also believes that being a smaller school system helped KIPP maintain its enrollment because that made it easier for staff to stay connected with families and find out why some students hadn't returned to school. Staff then directed families to resources that would help them with whatever their needs were, such as rent or utility payment assistance.

“Those touches are a little bit different than what you might be able to do, just for capacity reasons, in a larger school system," Smith said.

The traditional public school systems also are reaching out to families whose students have not returned to school and trying to find ways to resolve whatever issue is keeping them from being in school. If students have to work to help pay bills, NISD staff will try to arrange a schedule for students that allows them to work and attend school. If families have COVID-19 concerns, the district will offer to show them the precautions in place to protect students, said Katherine Lyssy, director of the Office of Student Advocacy and School Choice.

“It really is about getting down to the why for that particular kid or family and then doing what we can to help them," she said. "We're really more in the modality of support and assistance.”

Lyssy shared the example of a mom with a young daughter who is immunocompromised and whose pulmonologist advised her to stay home through January because the daughter gets pneumonia when she gets a cold. Although the window to sign up for NISD's virtual learning program has closed, Lyssy is working with administrators to see if they can make an exception, even if it's just temporary.

“It’s a lot of work, and it takes a long time," she said. "There just isn’t a magic bullet.”

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.