Most of the enrollment declines over the past two years occurred at the elementary school level; Lexington High School remains severely overcrowded. (Vivian Wang / LexObserver)
  • 2020-21 saw the biggest decline in LPS enrollment in almost 40 years, concentrated in elementary school and kindergarten; preliminary numbers show that enrollment continued to decline this year, less steeply
  • Most departing students in 2020-21 transferred to private school
  • LHS, already overcrowded, saw a slight drop last year, but continued to grow this year 
  • “Online Kindergarten was nearly impossible” 
  • Financial impact? Unclear
  • Employment impact? A reduction in some positions, but other positions remain open
  • The future? “A little bit of a black box”

            During the 2020-21 school year, following the pandemic’s arrival in March 2020, Lexington Public Schools experienced the biggest drop in K-12 enrollment since the 1982-83 school year. Preliminary numbers released last month show that enrollment continued to decline this year — though less dramatically.

            In 2020-21, enrollment decreased by 278 students. The drop occurred largely at the elementary school level, which accounted for 229 fewer students. A substantial portion of that decrease was concentrated in the youngest learners, at the kindergarten level, according to Section V of the LPS Master Plan Compendium. While kindergarten enrollment in Lexington had already been declining, last year’s “decline of 73 K[indergarten] students was much sharper,” per the report. 

            This year (2021-22), enrollment dropped again — though less sharply than last year, with a net decline of 92 students, according to the preliminary numbers (updated November numbers show a net decline of 89 students). Enrollment drops at the elementary and middle school level were slightly offset by a small increase in high school enrollment. Lexington High School remains severely overcrowded and the district continues to await state approval to begin a new building, as previously reported by LexObserver.

            Specifically, according to the most recent November adjustments, there were 74 fewer students in Lexington’s elementary schools this year, with the smaller kindergarten class from last year appearing to contribute to a smaller first-grade class this year. Middle schools saw a drop of 39 students. But in high school, 24 new students arrived. Still, even at the high school level, actual enrollment was well below projections. 

            The drop in overall and kindergarten enrollment both reflect a national trend, as reported by the New York Times, which is even more drastic in many low-income neighborhoods. 

            Where did families go — and what were the experiences that prompted them to leave, or seriously consider leaving, in the first place?

Choosing to leave for 2020-21

            After gathering data on the number of students who left LPS for the 2020-21 school year, the district also analyzed where students went. A table included in the Master Planning Compendium lists the number of students who transferred to homeschool, other in-state public schools, other in-state private schools and out-of-state public or private schools. The category with the biggest increase from 2019-20 to 2020-21 was private school: 112 more students transferred to in-state private school last year than did so for the 2019-20 school year.

            “Our hypothesis is that that had a lot to do with people being able to manage their work and home life,” Superintendent Julie Hackett said in a July interview. “We think that with school back to its normal schedule, which helps serve the public who has to work outside the home, often… we’ll get the kids back.”

            In 9th grade, three years ago, Mary Ann Sorel’s daughter had moved to Lexington High School from the private International School of Boston of her own volition, eager to try something new, Sorel said. Pre-COVID, she already found some of the social aspects of LHS challenging, and the overcrowding of the high school made her daughter “kind of feel like a number, a statistic, and not a person,” according to Sorel.

            But after the unexpected shift to remote learning in the spring of 2020, Sorel said her daughter found the idea of continuing completely unbearable – so she returned to her old school for junior year in 2020-21.

“Our hypothesis is that that had a lot to do with people being able to manage their work and home life.”

— Superintendent Julie Hackett

            Sorel’s younger two children, already in private school when COVID first hit, did not miss a beat. While LPS closed completely for two weeks in spring 2020, as many public school systems did, ISB transitioned straight to remote learning, without any kind of closure, Sorel noted.

            Private schools, of course, operate under fundamentally different constraints from public schools; many could more easily return to in-person learning thanks to much smaller classroom numbers, Lexington Education Association President Avon Lewis said. In Lexington, on the other hand, “we don’t physically have the space to make the smaller class sizes, which is why we wound up with the hybrid schedule [for much of the 2020-21 school year],” she added. The district even considered making use of non-school spaces, such as churches, she added.

            “I understand that private schools have a ton of funding and very small classes. I don’t think it’s fair to compare a public school to them,” LPS parent Sacha Uljon agreed.

             Uljon, a doctor and the mother of a 4th grader, did not move her child out of LPS — but she was one of the founders of the online group forum Lexgobacktoschool in February 2021, which advocated for LPS to bring students back to full-time in-person school. 

            “We were really frustrated that as we understood the science, school was safe. And I’m a scientist, my husband’s a scientist; I’m a physician, my husband’s a physician. And so there was a personal element of just being really ticked off,” Uljon explained. 

            She and approximately 280 other members of the listserv organized a group of parents to workshop statements read at School Committee meetings to encourage LPS to implement a full in-person return to school throughout the early months of 2021. 

            Sorel also recognized that private schools could not be held to the same standards as public schools, given the funding and regulatory constraints the latter face. “But it was very disappointing at a place like Lexington, that was supposed to be the number one school in Massachusetts” to not have more structure, she added.

            Her daughter at LHS stayed up late Facetiming with friends during spring 2020, and had little else to do, she said. Sorel wished she had been given more work, such as books to read or papers to write; “at least it would have given them some goals, and structures.”

            “At that point, we had a teaching staff, none of whom had ever heard of Zoom…almost none of whom had ever taken an online course,” Lewis said. The district also had to ensure all of the students – and staff – had the internet and technology needed to participate, Lewis added. 

       “For some families, maybe it would have been fine for the kids to just go home and like, [the] next day, sit down on Zoom and keep learning calculus, but that’s not equitable when it’s not fair for all the kids,” Lewis said. “We aspire to teach all students, and not just the ones who have the privilege and the resources already at hand – we needed time to build the infrastructure to make that possible.”

“For some families, maybe it would have been fine for the kids to just go home and like, [the] next day, sit down on Zoom and keep learning calculus, but that’s not equitable when it’s not fair for all the kids.”

— Lexington Education Association President Avon Lewis

            By operating with limited direct teaching time online during the spring of 2020, “what we were trying to do was ask of people something that they could do, as opposed to setting people up to fail,” Lewis said. “I understand that people were upset, but I listened and did a lot of work on outreaching to families… I think that was the right call for where we were then, and what skills we had then.”

            LPS parent Tina Weber said her daughter at LHS struggled significantly with her academics during remote learning, to the point that she ultimately switched her to public school in another state during the 2020-21 school year, midway through her junior year. She would have considered moving her to private school if not for the prohibitive expense, Weber added. 

            Yet Weber also admired the superintendent’s leadership efforts throughout the pandemic: “She never blamed anybody. She stayed calm… She never raised her voice, even when people were really, really just mean.” Weber teaches Leadership and Business Management at Tufts, and felt “academically, objectively…I think the superintendent has pretty good leadership skills.”

            Elizabeth, who is identified by her middle name due to fear of personal repercussions, has lived in Lexington for 12 years and has four children currently and formerly in the LPS system. She had been “relatively happy” with LPS pre-COVID, especially elementary and middle school. But during the pandemic, that changed.

“I knew in private school…that was my biggest hope of him getting to actually be in the classroom most of the year – and he was.”

— Elizabeth, LPS parent

            Ultimately, Elizabeth moved her high school junior to private school for the 2020-21 school year as a consequence of COVID-19. She could only afford to send one child to private school, she explained, and was most nervous about hybrid learning in the high school – and thought COVID-related learning loss for an older student would be a much more serious setback than for an elementary school student. Her class of 2021 senior was a relatively independent learner, and did not want to switch schools his senior year, so she moved her junior, she explained.

             “I wanted to make sure he got some education before he graduated,” Elizabeth said. “And I knew in private school…that was my biggest hope of him getting to actually be in the classroom most of the year – and he was.” In-person learning in private school was also a mental health boon for her son. “He was happy, he was engaged… he had as normal [a school year] as you could be with masks and distancing.”

            For her children who remained at LPS, the year was a mixed bag, she said. Clarke Middle School “overall handled it pretty well on [Elizabeth’s daughter’s] in-person weeks,” though the whole situation was still “sucky.” But “[remote] weeks were a mess” because there was not enough to do. Her then-7th grader “was done by like 9 in the morning or something with actual stuff she had to do. And then I think she had some asynchronous [work], but it basically didn’t seem like a lot happened [after].”

            Because the high school did not require cameras, remote schooling lacked key accountability for her high school senior: “He would log in, turn his camera off and go back to bed and then teach himself the material.”

            While Elizabeth acknowledged that increased empathy was important this year given the extreme circumstances some families faced, she felt the school system was too lenient toward students who missed classes: “I don’t think a lot of high schoolers attended a lot of classes.”

            Even in person, the school day for PK-8 students was an hour shorter than usual Monday through Thursday. “The assumption that parents were available all of the time to handle all this stuff was very frustrating,” Elizabeth said. She described it as especially frustrating to shuttle her middle school daughter home an hour early, and then back to school for her sport at 3:30 p.m. at Clarke.

            In general, “a lot of the things that teachers had the kids do just gave me more jobs,” she added.

Why the kindergarten drop? One source said “online Kindergarten was nearly impossible”

            Even before starting kindergarten in the fall of 2020, Miranda Cohen’s preschooler was already disenchanted with Zoom learning. 

            “By day three [of remote learning in the spring], it was like, ‘done this, this is boring,’” Cohen recalled. “I thought, Oh my gosh, it’s the beginning of her school career. And I don’t want to turn her off to it from the very beginning.” 

            So Cohen seriously considered private school for the 2020-21 school year, but ultimately stayed with LPS. Cohen soon realized that the challenges of hybrid learning were simply too much for her child: “We really regretted not doing private school!” she wrote in an email to LexObserver. “Online Kindergarten was nearly impossible and after a while most weeks we ended up doing only a handful of synchronous lessons and supplementing the rest on our own.” 

            Cohen also had to balance work with parenting, a well-documented struggle for many pandemic parents. Working from home in the same room as her daughter, “we were like the battleship game,” she said; “she had her laptop and I had my laptop and I was setting a timer” to help her switch between lessons. 

“Online Kindergarten was nearly impossible and after a while most weeks we ended up doing only a handful of synchronous lessons and supplementing the rest on our own.”

— Miranda Cohen, LPS parent

            But she didn’t have an easy answer for how the district could have made remote learning more manageable, given the inherent constraints of the format: “I don’t know how they could have done it differently.”

            Cohen wished the school had brought grades K-2 back to school in-person full time, LexObserver previously reported. Some peer districts did bring their youngest students in for school every day; Brookline had kindergarten students in school every day from Sept. 16, 2020 throughout the year.

            Remote learning was simply less accessible to most elementary school students, as many parents and educators have observed. “They were less able to access things online; they’re much more multi-sensory learners and used to moving more,” Beverly Montgomery, a speech pathologist and founder of the Lex Communicate clinic, said. But, this gap was no one’s fault: “Teachers certainly went above and beyond to make that happen, but it’s just not the same,” Montgomery added.

Choosing to leave for 2021-22

            By early March 2021, when she had to make the decision about re-enrolling in private school for the following school year, Elizabeth felt there had not been confirmation that Lexington High School would return to full-time, in-person school in the fall. 

            Though LPS had planned for a full in-person return in the fall of 2021 since at least Jan. 2, 2021, when the superintendent outlined a budget assuming a full in-person return, as previously reported by LexObserver, other communications made Elizabeth wary. For instance, she noted that the district was only promising “to increase in-person learning opportunities for middle and high school students” in both a March 8 community update and a March 9 superintendent’s report. Both were written immediately before the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) mandated a full-time, in-person return for all elementary, middle and high school students statewide before the end of the 2020-21 school year in a March 9 announcement from Commissioner of Education Jeffrey Riley. 

            Elizabeth felt that the language “increase[d] in-person learning opportunities” differed from the explicit promise of a “return to full-time, in-person learning/school on April 5, 2021” for elementary school students included in the same two LPS documents. Despite the earlier budgetary commitment by LPS to have all students back in full-time, in-person school for the fall of 2021, this difference in wording suggested to Elizabeth that older students might not be back in full-time, in-person school anytime soon, she explained.

            Similarly, Ann – who is also identified by her middle name due to fear of personal repercussions – moved her rising 9th grader to private school for the 2021-22 school year. Ann has taught in private schools and attended private school herself, but has been a parent in the LPS system for nine years, she said. She was on the fence when the deadline came around in March 2021 for committing to private school, she said, but was driven to a “breaking point” when as part of the application process, she had to submit an English assignment with teacher comments – and “my son didn’t have a single assignment with any teacher feedback on it,” she said.

            Like Elizabeth, in March, when she had to make the decision to enroll, “I did not trust that Lexington High School was going to be in person,” she added.

            As a teacher herself, Ann is sympathetic to the challenges of teaching on Zoom: “It is so slow and arduous,” she said. Still, she was concerned about how much learning her son missed, from the books cut from the curriculum to units cut from history classes because they were too complex to teach well on Zoom, she said.

“I did not trust that Lexington High School was going to be in person.”

— Ann, LPS parent

            Her younger son, in 4th grade last year, also found hybrid learning exhausting.

            “We were in the house preparing for remote learning and the school bus went by, and he just burst into tears and buried his head in the couch and he was like, ‘I just want to go to school so badly,’” Ann said. “Just that noise of the school bus… would trigger tears for a couple of weeks in our house.”

            Ann wished students had gone back to school immediately in September 2020, rather than adopting a phased approach. Hybrid learning was fully phased in over about six weeks at LPS in the fall: Elementary school students began limited hybrid learning during the week of Sept. 14, but all grades did not begin hybrid learning until a month later, the week of Oct. 12. For middle and high schoolers, learning remained fully remote until Oct. 12, and hybrid was phased in grade by grade starting with 6th and 9th grade, and did not apply to all students until the week of Oct. 26, nearly two months after the start of the school year.

            Ann also wished students had returned to full-time, in-person school a few weeks before the state-mandated deadlines in the spring of 2021, rather than right on the legal deadline. “[The difference of just a few weeks] sounds petty. But when you’ve been doing it all year, it’s like, they were just dying to go back to school.”

            Some other highly ranked Massachusetts public school districts did bring their high school students back for full-time, in-person learning a few weeks sooner, including Brookline, Concord and Wellesley, which all brought high school students back the week of April 26, about three weeks prior to Lexington’s May 17 full-time return for high schoolers. But, the overcrowding of Lexington’s building was a unique local constraint on the return of older students in Lexington. Hackett explained in an April 14 announcement that Lexington high school students could not return to in-person learning at LHS before May 17 due to Lexington’s unique space constraints, which were exacerbated by MCAS classroom space needs.

            Adriana Bokel moved to Lexington during the summer of 2020 “because of the schools,” she said. Previously, her children had attended private school in Germany, where the family had lived. This year, Bokel has a 10th grader still in LPS – but transferred her now-7th grader from LPS to private school for the 2021-22 school year. She made this change mostly because she was eager for her daughter to actively play on middle school sports teams as a younger student, which she described as a problem separate from COVID-19. But COVID-19 issues with LPS contributed to her decision to leave the local public school system, she explained.

“This kid here [was] totally wanting to learn, hungry for experience…but there was nothing for her coming from the school.”

— Adriana Bokel, LPS parent

            Bokel’s younger daughter “lost learning 100%,” Bokel said. During her remote weeks, her daughter would complete all class work and homework for the week “if not by Monday, by Tuesday. So she was watching movies the rest of the week, she was doing some things, but it wasn’t really any work.” Bokel acknowledged that not all students would be in this position, but asked that the school provide supplemental voluntary work for kids in this position — a request that was turned down, she said.

            “This kid here [was] totally wanting to learn, hungry for experience…but there was nothing for her coming from the school,” Bokel said.

            Bokel also cited the challenge of being a working parent during hybrid learning. 

            “We all have to work. I mean, at least I don’t have the [luxury] of not working…So if my kid doesn’t go to school, I don’t know what to do with them,” Bokel said. “I think that is something that the schools didn’t really take into consideration….or the teachers for the matter.”

Financial impact of the enrollment drop? Unclear

            Does a drop in enrollment mean a hit to the LPS budget? Not necessarily, according to Superintendent Hackett.

            The preliminary October enrollment numbers “are slightly different” than the numbers submitted to DESE; the latter are used to determine the Foundation Budget Enrollment, which includes all of the students LPS is financially responsible for — a number not limited to the students in LPS buildings, Hackett explained in an email to LexObserver. The Foundation Budget Enrollment number “also includes out of district placements, students in other special education settings, charter school enrollees, and other students in public school settings,” Hackett wrote.

            Foundation Enrollment is then used to calculate the Foundation Budget for Lexington Public Schools by DESE, Hackett explained. “That budget will be used to calculate what the district will be required to contribute and what the state will add in Chapter 70 aid,” she wrote. The state sets LPS’s aid percentage at 17.5%, which is the maximum amount of the target Foundation Budget the state will contribute.

            In FY2022, corresponding to the 2020-21 school year, according to DESE, LPS’ Foundation Enrollment dropped by 4% — but its Chapter 70 aid increased by $209,000, Hackett wrote. “The prior year for the FY21 calculation, enrollment dipped by -0.72% but there was no change in our Ch 70 aid,” she added.

            Overall, “it’s too soon to tell whether enrollment will have a great impact on aid,” Hackett wrote. Enrollment numbers impact the Foundation Budget calculation, “but other factors will potentially have greater impact,” including “inflation on the individual spending categories, changes in the make-up of the student demographic, changes in enrollment of different grade spans, and ultimately the State funding appropriation will have the greater impact on Foundation Budgets.”

“It’s too soon to tell whether enrollment will have a great impact on aid.”

— Superintendent Julie Hackett

            Even if state aid did decrease significantly, American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) federal pandemic funding could help, Hackett added, “unless it is used to address current year issues that are needs-based driven.” At the Oct. 26 School Committee meeting, LexObserver previously reported that members unanimously voted to pursue the reestablishment of an elementary school world language program, which would use roughly $1.2M in ESSER III funding, according to Hackett’s early proposal. As of the FY2023 Budget Summit held Oct. 14, also included in previous reporting, LPS had over $500,000 left over in previous ESSER funds.

            LPS did lose some funding last year as a consequence of the drop in enrollment, according to Hackett — but these losses were entirely offset by pandemic relief grants, she said, so they did not actually impact the district financially. 

            “We did take somewhat of a hit in the fall in terms of our enrollment levels, but it also was offset by the additional grant funds through the federal government. So it was not as bad as it might have been,” Hackett said.

Impact on LPS jobs?

            Enrollment drops can also result in staff losing jobs. But given the nationwide labor shortage, LPS actually is hiring for multiple positions, especially substitute teachers and instructional assistants. 

            LPS was also able to mitigate enrollment drop impacts on employment in the short term, according to LEA President Lewis. While the district was able to avoid laying staff off directly, LPS did have to reduce the number of staff positions for the 2021-22 school year, according to Lewis. But last year, the district actually had to hire more staff despite the enrollment drop to facilitate hybrid and remote learning.

            According to projections pre-COVID for the 2020-21 school year, “we had [already] projected a slight decrease in kindergarten enrollment,” Lewis noted. This meant that on the staff end, the district “had expected that we would be losing a couple of positions — but it was only a couple and we thought we would be able to handle it through attrition,” Lewis explained. This would mean that the district would be able to avoid directly laying anyone off by not refilling positions vacated by staff moving on to other jobs or retiring; “that would obviously be the preferred way to reduce staff.”

            But once the pandemic hit in March 2020, it became clear that LPS would need more, not fewer, staff members to facilitate hybrid learning and supervising smaller, cohorted groups of students: “It took about 30 seconds to sit down with a piece of paper and a schedule to say that this is going to mean we need more staff, not less.”

            So, for the 2020-21 school year, the district hired more staff instead of reducing staff through attrition.

            But with the full return of the 2021-22 year, the staffing needs of cohorted students and hybrid learning dissipated — compounding the decrease in staff already necessitated by the declining enrollment.

            To handle this, the district did a couple of things. First, “going into this year, basically everyone who was in a special one-year COVID position was non-renewed,” Lewis said.

            Second, “for our regular people, for the most part, I think we were able to accomplish all of the reduction in staffing through attrition-type means,” Lewis said. Some non-professional status (PTS) teachers, or teachers without tenure, were non-renewed, as also happens every year, while other positions were eliminated by attrition, Lewis said. 

            Among those whose positions were cut, those who wanted to were able to find jobs “either in the same building or elsewhere in the district,” Lewis said. “So while we have less positions, we’ve kept all the people who want to keep a job this year.” 

An uncertain future

            District leaders think that enrollment will rebound within a few years — but admit that this outcome remains uncertain, leaving the long-term financial and staffing impacts for LPS uncertain as well.

            In the future, Lewis hopes the enrollment rebounds — but also hopes that it does not get any higher than it was, given the overcrowding in the high school, which is still projected to increase as large classes of middle schoolers advance. 

            “We’re going to be looking at a situation where we’re losing staffing in the elementary and gaining it at the high school,” Lewis said.

            Most district leaders said they expected enrollment to rebound within the next few years.

            “We think that we’ll rebound to the pre-pandemic enrollment levels,” Hackett said. 

“The reason why people move to Lexington, and pay the taxes in Lexington, is because of the schools.”

— LEA President Avon Lewis

            But it is difficult to find a point of comparison with COVID-19 for the school system, she noted, saying the best recent comparison was “the economic crisis of 2009.” 

            “People went away during that time, and then the enrollments rebounded. So we think that that’s possible here,”  she said. 

            Still, “it’s sort of a little bit of a black box,” School Committee Chair Kathleen Lenihan said, noting that families who left might have discovered that they preferred other methods of education they sought out and never would have otherwise, such as Montessori School. “But yeah, there is the expectation that people will come back.”

            “Going down the road, it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen with this post-COVID kindergarten enrollment, whether or not that’s going to rebound,” Lewis agreed, adding, “I expect it probably will in a year or two…The reason why people move to Lexington, and pay the taxes in Lexington, is because of the schools.”

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