More than 1,300 new students have enrolled in Tucson’s largest school district since it reopened campuses in March, and at least some of those students had not been in school at all since the district closed more than a year ago because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Enrollment numbers fluctuate in a normal year, but typically the last quarter of the school year is a flatline when you factor both students entering and leaving the district. But this year there was an upward trend. While 1,342 new students came to the district, there were nearly 500 withdrawals, for a net increase of about 840 students since opening in March.
TUSD attributes the increase in students to reopening schools after a year of closures.
Of the new students, 530 are enrolling in an Arizona school for the first time this year, which could mean they have not been in school this whole school year. The two largest categories of new students were either attending local charter schools or seemingly not in school at all, said TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo.
“The second group is a little more difficult, and we’re going to learn more in the coming weeks,” Trujillo said. “We still don’t have a total handle on it. It’s going to take us some time. The second group is just students that have just reappeared, and they were not engaged in online learning at all.”
More students continue to trickle back into the district, Trujillo said. For now, schools are focused on getting the new students oriented — getting them a schedule, a Chromebook and making them feel welcome.
The district is encouraging these students to sign up for summer school, but a lot of the work of assessing where students are at academically and what they need will happen with benchmark assessments at the beginning of next school year.
“Particularly with math and English Language Arts, every kid is going to be at a different level so we have to move in with an infrastructure that’s going to assess each kid individually and then examine the circumstances that led to the prolonged absence and disengagement in the first place,” Trujillo said. “Was it lack of access to technology? Was it frustration with troubleshooting issues with technology? Was it not having a WiFi hotspot? Was it just the anger and frustration of not being around friends? We need to find out what happened.”
Of all the new enrollments, the largest portion was in kindergarten, which is also where the district saw the largest enrollment decline this year, followed by preschool. But the district has received new students in all grade levels since March.
Public schools across Pima County saw a decrease of nearly 1,000 children enrolled in kindergarten from last year, and the state saw about 8,650 fewer kindergarteners. While some parents decided to hold off on kindergarten for a year, the enrollment drop was larger for school districts as parents enrolled more young learners in charter schools offering in-person learning.
Young students who did not attend schools or who only did remote learning most of the school year didn’t just miss out on academic learning but also lost a year of typical social development by not being around other kids on a regular basis, said Iliana Reyes, an associate dean in the University of Arizona College of Education and developmental psychologist and professor in early childhood education.
“Children learn in terms of their own social attachments — how they interact with family and other people in their circle — they learn how to transfer that security to relate to others emotionally,” Reyes said in a press release. “Many children have missed that transition.”
And returning to the classroom will not immediately stem the effects of the pandemic on kids’ social development, Reyes said. It will take time for children to readapt to new routines, which will also be changing along with changing public health guidelines for schools around COVID-19.
While TUSD saw a decline of 638 kindergarteners and 557 preschoolers from last year, the increase since March was only 162 and 126, respectively.
The constant changes of the year created difficult circumstances for all students, whether they switched schools for the last quarter of the school year, haven’t been learning all year or even switched back and forth from remote to in-person, but these constant and dramatic changes are especially hard for children with developmental disabilities.
In some children with behavior difficulties, educators are seeing a lot of severe behavioral problems that were not necessarily there before, said Rebecca Hartzell, an assistant professor of practice of disability and psychoeducational studies at the UA College of Education.
For these children, focusing on social-emotional needs may be more important right now than academics, Hartzell said. Middle school students have also missed a year that’s important in figuring out interpersonal skills.
“It helps you to figure out how to resolve conflict, how to navigate complicated schedules, how to prioritize your executive-function skills,” Hartzell said. “All of that you’re sort of developing in middle school, and then imagine taking an entire year out of that. So some of that maturity now needs to happen in high school … but now you don’t have that middle school experience to build upon, so I do feel like we’re going to see some difficulty in the areas of social interaction, communication and behaviorally.”
Trujillo said a lot of the students who just seemed to show up out of nowhere are high-schoolers, which could mean those students will be behind on credits to graduate with their cohort.
There are credit recovery programs for those students, which will be imperative to keep kids from getting discouraged and dropping out of high school, he said. TUSD, like all local school districts, is offering enhanced summer school programs to help get kids caught up and ready for a return to a full in-person school year.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to get our kids caught up and credit-current because we know what life looks like for a high school dropout or a student that drops out, doesn’t get a diploma, gets discouraged, gets behind on credits and just starts working,” Trujillo said. “The economic outcomes compared to a young person that goes and gets a JTED education and learns a career and becomes college/career ready or goes to university or goes to the military — those academic outcomes and quality-of-life outcomes are significantly healthier than those students that don’t get a diploma and don’t move on, so this is definitely something that we’re taking very, very seriously.”
TUSD will also bring a proposal before the governing board later this month to hire 15 dropout prevention specialists to exclusively manage the caseload of students who have completely fallen off the radar or who have not engaged on a full-time basis.
Across the state and the country, children have gone missing from public school systems entirely while others showed up infrequently and sporadically. There is no statewide mechanism for tracking these students, but rather the task has primarily fallen to individual districts and schools.
Statewide, public schools saw a decline of 38,550 students this year. The numbers dropped even more dramatically in school districts as parents moved their children to in-person charter schools by the thousands. Pima County saw a 4,640 decline, and TUSD saw a decline of about 3,350 students before the influx from opening schools in March.
TUSD principals, teachers and staff have been reaching out to students whose whereabouts were unknown all year, and the district has said they are working to compile numbers on how many kids are still MIA.
“What we have seen is some, certainly not a majority and certainly not all, we’ve seen some of these students come back for in-person instruction out of nowhere,” Trujillo said. “Students that we’ve called all through the 2020 year to ask them what’s going on, and we haven’t gotten any calls, and then us opening on March 22 and all of a sudden, the kids showing up and saying, ‘What’s my schedule? Where do I go?’ No rhyme or reason.”