COVID Could Throw Enrollment Curve Ball at Wilton Schools Next Fall

Every year Wilton accountant and enrollment numbers guru Ellen Essman makes enrollment projections for the Wilton Public Schools district, helping the Board of Education (BOE) and Wilton school administrators as they begin the budget process for the coming year. But during Thursday night’s (Nov. 19) BOE meeting, Essman reiterated how difficult the pandemic makes it to accurately predict and estimate for next fall–and that the district should prepare for possible surprises.

That includes the possibility of having to add an entirely unexpected new section of kindergarteners.

“This is a pandemic projection,” she began. Viewers got the sense that for Essman, who lives and breathes numbers, interpreting what those numbers were telling her was more complicated than usual this year.

To make her projections, Essman analyzes several sets of data, most prominently birth and census figures, preschool enrollment, and historic trends.

Even as the district has typically seen declines in total overall enrollment, there have always been areas of growth between certain grade levels–most particularly between kindergarten and 1st grade. That’s been true, until this year, thanks to the impact of the COVID pandemic.

“Looking at 2019 to 2020, for the first time a decrease in kindergarten of nine, a decrease that went from first grade to second grade of 12, and smaller decreases as we go through. What’s significant, if you look at the history of kindergarten as well as first grade, we’ve always had positive net migration for Kindergarten and first; that’s what concerned me when I saw the numbers of decrease, and when I looked at historical data, that indicated of the students that exited, quite a few are being homeschooled (31) and 48 moved to private schools,” Essman explained.

What makes it more difficult for her to predict is what happens when the COVID pandemic ends–and the unknown of when it will end. Will students begin returning, and when will that happen?

“It was also stunning to me the number of 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders who were in fact withdrawn from the school system, either for homeschooling or to go to private school. That difference was quite compelling to me to make me realize there could very well be upwards of 44 students in that K-2 area that may come [back] in,” Essman said.

Those numbers caused me to pause and think that perhaps we could see more students coming into the system [next year]. But that’s all predicated on what happens with this virus. Yes there’s a vaccine coming out but we don’t know if there are pharmaceuticals appropriate for students; we don’t know if everyone will be willing to take the vaccine…so it’s still a big unknown,” she added.

For now, she projects that in the fall 2021 there will be an entering kindergarten class of 215 students–but the district may have additional children show up next year for kindergarten that it’s not expecting. Another possibility, depending on the course of the pandemic, is that more students would enter first grade in 2022 rather than kindergarten in 2021.

But some factors signal to Essman that the number of new kindergarten students in 2021 could be higher, by as much as 21 students. That includes ‘artificially’ low numbers in some area preschools who elected to keep smaller class sizes for safety reasons, as well as parents who delayed enrolling their students in kindergarten this year.

In addition, Wilton saw a sharp rise in home sales–typically something that signals new families with younger children moving into the district.

“We had home transfers and sales of 408 in Wilton through Nov, 13; that’s a lot compared to prior years. Last year, it was something like 112, and the year before was even lower,” Essman explained. “Four hundred eight is a huge number, and they are incorporated [in the projections], but if this trend continues it will have a significant impact on the school system.”

Essman’s overall forecast anticipates 3,677 students in the district K-12, (3,747 including pre-K) which is relatively flat from 2020 to 2021. “But I can’t caution you enough that we could conceivably have 21 more children coming into the school system,” she reminded the BOS.

The impact on the budget such a bubble could cause is critical to anticipate, especially as school and town finance officials are just now beginning the budget process for FY 2022.

“I really feel, and I’m hopeful that once we have the vaccination, life will return to some form of normalcy and parents will be more comfortable sending children to school. I don’t think we want to be caught having 21 more students in our lower grades and we’re not prepared for that and we don’t have the budget for that,” Essman said. “That would be terrible, it’s a whole section. I would think we would want to add those students.”

Superintendent Kevin Smith said he would begin reaching out to families who had decided to homeschool now to gauge what their plans for next year might be.

“We were just at business operations, working on assumptions, and planning the budget off [of] those assumptions. The consensus in that group was to take a rosier outlook, pandemic recovery, vaccine, etc. So we really need to know as much as we can about who might be considering coming back,” he said.