Pandemic Causes Dip In Public School Enrollment

 

By REBECCA MEHORTER
Specially Written for The Leader/Times

AREA — Both Westfield Public Schools and Scotch Plains-Fanwood Public Schools have seen a dip in enrollment numbers for the 2020-2021 school year. Westfield lost 273 students, bringing total enrollment numbers under 6,000 for the first time in at least 11 years. Scotch Plains-Fanwood lost approximately 163 students after maintaining a relatively steady number of students for the past nine years.

Since the pandemic began nearly a year ago, schools have faced a number of roadblocks in regaining any sense of normalcy. Students in both municipalities are not in school for full days, with most still on a hybrid of in-person and virtual-learning models.

“As I’ve said previously, there is no doubt that this year has been difficult – at times, seemingly impossible – for everyone, especially for students who are younger or have specific needs,” Margaret Dolan, Ed.D., Westfield Public Schools Superintendent, said. “I do not minimize the challenges of students on computer screens for hours, of parents juggling the needs of their children with employment and other responsibilities, and of staff members going above and beyond even as they struggle with their own personal responsibilities.”

While public and private schools are required to follow the same guidelines, as Regional Health Director Megan Avallone explained to parents at Monday’s board of health meeting, private schools have the advantages, generally, of fewer students, more accessible funds and more flexible leadership structures.

Gerard Gonnella, director of admission and financial aid at The Wardlaw+Hartridge School, said he is seeing increased interest in mid-year transfers.

“It seems I’m still placing students mid-year,” Mr. Gonnella said. “There are public-school families … that are not happy with their school’s approach.”

He said there has been an increase in Wardlaw+Hartridge’s pre-k through grade 8 program as well as heavy levels of interest in its ninth- and 10th-grade programs.

Mr. Gonnella said the school took “tremendous efforts” to open in person in the fall. Wardlaw+Hartridge updated its HVAC systems, invested in cameras and technology for students who chose virtual learning and adjusted classrooms to be coronavirus-safe, he said. One aspect that allowed the school to open full time was that Wardlaw+Hartridge is able to serve lunch. Mr. Gonnella said Lower School students eat in their classrooms and Upper School students are assigned to a table in the lunchroom and have Plexiglass dividers between each student. The food service staff also wraps each piece of fruit and each dish to keep them germ-free.

However, comparing Westfield and Scotch Plains-Fanwood Public Schools to Wardlaw+Hartridge is not really possible, he noted. Wardlaw+Hartridge has a population of approximately 465, Mr. Gonnella said. Westfield has 5,954 students in its district and Scotch Plains-Fanwood has approximately 5,309.

Mr. Gonnella was clear that Wardlaw+Hartridge is extremely different. He said the school does not have to negotiate with unions, as all its teachers are under one-year contracts, a system he says works for Wardlaw+Hartridge.

“I would say how we differ, in parochial schools, there’s a diocese to contend with,” Mr. Gonnella said. He said the multiple administrators, supervisors and superintendents that public schools have can slow changes down, whereas “we can just talk to ourselves.”

“While all school administrators – public and private – face unique challenges brought on by Covid-19, public schools have additional challenges that private schools do not,” Dr. Dolan said in her statement. “Private schools can cap the number of students they accept; public schools cannot. Space is the primary issue for the Westfield Public School District. We worked hard last summer to open in September with a hybrid model that allowed a level of in-person instruction.”

Westfield resident Elyse Everett said she enrolled her two oldest children at Morristown-Beard School after “we heard about Westfield’s plans for this school year,” as she was concerned about her oldest daughter’s social-emotional health and her son’s ability to be “in front of a screen all day during virtual learning and (stay) on target.” She said transferring to a private school that offers in-person learning “has made a huge difference.” She said the family feels very fortunate that they were able to make the transition to private schools at “a key time” in her children’s lives.

Ms. Everett said Morristown-Beard had “the financial ability to pivot and plan for life during the pandemic,” like investing in technology and infrastructure to keep students safe.

Ms. Everett said the plan at the moment is for her oldest daughter to complete high school and for her son to complete middle school at Morristown-Beard. Her youngest daughter is still enrolled in the Westfield Public School system at this time.

“Both my husband, Scott, and I always thought we were a public-school family,” Ms. Everett said. “But when the landscape changed, we needed to pivot in order to meet the emotional, physical and educational needs of our children.”

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