Student enrollment in almost all greater Cortland area school districts dropped at least 13% over the last eight completed school years, state statistics show, exceeding the area’s population loss over the past decade.
Educators say they see parents move to homeschooling during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there is also a decade-long dip in births and population in Cortland County.
The 13% drop also exceeds the state enrollment, which was 9.1%, down to 2.46 million from 2.69 million.
Public and private schools are both noting smaller enrollments, while a homeschooling cooperative in the area is seeing a pandemic-era student boost. Only one school district in Cortland County, the McGraw Central School District, saw a stable population from the 2011-12 school year to the 2019-20 year: it lost just six students, making its 2021-20 district enrollment 534.
The 2020 population in Cortland County dropped 5% to 46,809 from the 2010 population of 49,336, reports the U.S. Census Bureau.
Student enrollment declines are on pace with the declining birth rate.
Over the decade between 2008 and 2018, the birth rate dipped 17% to 10 births per 1,000 people from 12 per 1,000, state Health Department data show.
The Cortland City School district lost 14% of its students since 2011-2012, state data show. Enrollment dropped to 2,259 in 2020-21 from 2,640 in 2011-12.
Dryden lost the greatest portion of students locally, falling 20%, to 1,371 in 2020-21 from 1,719 in 2011-12.
- Homer: Down 14% to 1,853 students.
- Groton: Down 13%, to 811 students.
- Marathon: Down 13%, to 637 students.
The declines were not a surprise to Groton School Superintendent Margo Martin.
“The only district in New York State that consistently has increased is the NYC school system,” Martin said. “I think rural schools are losing at a little more rapid rate than urban because the blue-collar industry left.”
Martin found that more families started enrolling students in private and charter schools during the pandemic, and opting to homeschool, as well.
Some of the families are choosing to homeschool around the parents’ workdays, Martin said, teaching when they are home during the evening rather than trying to keep their kids on task doing remote learning. Some parents said they were not going to send their children to school until all children can be vaccinated and they can count on school not being disrupted by quarantines, she said.
The loss of students was particularly glaring in Groton’s universal preschool and kindergarten enrollment.
“Last year, because of COVID, I had 29,” Martin said. That’s down from a typical year with 48 to 57 kids. “It almost cut our numbers in half.”
“We’ve experienced a similar drop in enrollment starting about the time of the shutdown,” said J. Craig Miller, the head of the private Cortland Christian Academy. “Some of our families opted to home educate.”
The problems of childcare for two-income households was a factor for some of the parents leaving the private academy, too.
“In several instances, it was the fear of a potential return to remote learning,” Miller said. “Parents opt for preschool as part of their day-care solution”
In 2020, enrollment was much higher at St. Paul Lutheran Nursery School in Cortland, said preschool teacher Wendy Clark-Darby, but numbers were unavailable.
“But we don’t know how to attribute that,” Clark-Darby said. “It is lower than other years. But we’re here. We’re in class. We need some more kiddos, that’s for sure.”
The Finger Lakes Homeschool cooperative has seen more students, now up to 45 families.
“Homeschooling has certainly increased in the last two years,” said Jenna Kain, a board member of the cooperative. “Many in our homeschool of 45 families are new to homeschooling since the pandemic.”