2021 | Schools

MCPS enrollment declines for second consecutive year after decade of growth

Number dips below 160,000 for first time since 2017

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This story was updated at 5:45 p.m. Oct. 25, 2021, to correct a calculation of 3% of the student population.

After a decade of rapid growth, Montgomery County Public Schools’ enrollment declined for the second consecutive year, a trend district leaders attribute to the COVID-19 pandemic.

MCPS’ enrollment — which climbed as high as 166,000 students in 2019 — is 159,005 students as of Sept. 30, according to Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight. The number, which would serve as the district’s official enrollment and has implications on funding, still needs to be certified by the state Board of Education.

If it holds, it would be the first year MCPS’ enrollment has dropped below 160,000 since 2017, according to district records.

Last school year, the district’s enrollment decreased by about 4,700 students.

The decline is a stark contrast to most of the last decade, when the district averaged an increase of more than 2,000 students annually and expected to eclipse 170,000 students by 2025.

In the 2019-20 school year, the MCPS enrollment grew by more than 2,700, the largest one-year increase in more than a decade. The MCPS enrollment has grown by more than 11,000 students since 2010, solidifying the school district as one of the largest in the country.

Now, the district doesn’t expect to climb back up to about 166,000 students districtwide until the 2027-28 school year.

Adrienne Karamihas, director of MCPS’ Division of Capital Planning and Real Estate, attributed the decline to the COVID-19 pandemic, which began in March 2020, and a steady decline in births over the past several years.

Funding for school districts largely depends on enrollment and per-pupil funding. The county government is required, by state law, to provide at least as much funding per pupil each year as the previous year. So, if MCPS’ enrollment is down, the county would be required to provide less funding.

Enrollment in nearly every grade decreased this year, except kindergarten and ninth grade. Ninth grade usually sees larger increases than other grades because many students make the transition from private or parochial school to public school at that time, Karamihas said.

Enrollment decreases over the past two years are not unique to MCPS.

Recent research from the Brookings Institute showed that public school enrollment has decreased nationwide, largely in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. An NPR poll of 60 districts across the country showed an average enrollment drop of 16% in kindergarten.

Another problem plaguing school district enrollment involves routine vaccinations.

In Maryland, nearly 23,000 students do not have the required immunizations to attend school, like the meningococcal and tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis vaccines.

At the same time in 2019, 62 students statewide did not have the required immunizations, according to documents posted in advance of a state Board of Education meeting on Tuesday.

The figures do not include COVID-19 vaccinations, which are not required for students.

Usually these students would not be allowed to attend in-person classes until they provide proof of vaccination, but the state issued a 45-day waiver to allow noncompliant students to remain in school.

Generally, though, students who were not compliant as of Sept. 30 — the day the state takes official enrollment for each district — would not be counted toward the total.

The state Board of Education on Tuesday will consider a waiver that would allow districts to include these students in their official count this year. Without it, “a substantial number of students currently served by (school districts) would be excluded from the State Aid calculation for fiscal year 2023 and (school districts) would receive a subsequently reduced state aid calculation,” documents say.

The documents do not provide the data by school district.

In an email to Bethesda Beat on Monday, MCPS spokesman Chris Cram wrote that the county’s Department of Health and Human Services recently told district leaders 97% of students “are fully vaccinated for the required shots to be in school.”

By that standard, 3% of 159,005 students is roughly 4,770 students.

MCPS applied for and received the 45-day extension — which lasts until mid-November — to give families more time to get their children vaccinated, Cram wrote.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com