If a coronavirus outbreak forces the Sitka School District to close its buildings, students in grades K-8 will be sent home with an iPad; high school students will have laptops. Availability has been a problem, however — a district order of 240 iPads has been slow to arrive. Lacking the proper equipment “would be a drag” on the transition to all-virtual instruction, said Sitka Superintendent John Holst. (Flickr photo/Sean MacEntee)

Low school enrollment in Anchorage has Sitka officials a bit worried that parents may be exploring alternatives to public education — in spite of an intensive effort to make schools safe this fall.

Superintendent John Holst told the Sitka School Board last week (8-19-20) that the district may not have a firm idea of how many students will attend the district’s in-person or remote programs until school opens this Thursday — and even then numbers could shift over the first few weeks of teaching.

The news from Anchorage earlier this month was that enrollment in the city’s huge school district was running about 5,000 students below normal — about 24,000, as opposed to a more typical 29,000 expected around the beginning of August.

It was easy to attribute the drop to the limitations of the coronavirus and the fact that in-person registration simply wasn’t happening as usual. But there was another, more startling number: 660 students in the Anchorage district had asked for their transcripts in order to enroll elsewhere — that’s a twelve-fold increase over the 50 students who have requested their records by early August in a normal year.

Sitka is a far cry from Anchorage, but Superintendent John Holst wanted to alert the school board to the trend. 

Holst – The enrollments all over the state are coming in low. I don’t know if you saw the news from Anchorage — I can’t remember the exact number — but it is an enormous amount of kids who aren’t showing up. The millions of dollars in revenue that that’s going to be is just frightening. Now, we really don’t know about ourselves yet. We do know that people have selected all three of the choices we have. The largest percentage obviously are electing to send their kids to school. But we do have a sizable number of parents who have selected virtual. The principals have done a great job. We have one virtual class at Keet, one at Baranof, and then a second, third, fourth, and fifth virtual classroom at Keet — which means that we’ve probably got about 115 or 120 kids at each of those grade levels. 

Holst goes on…

I would anticipate that as we start school, those numbers will be at their high point, I suspect,  because we all know kids and they like being around their peers, and so operating for a month I think we’re going to see some of those kids drifting back into school. And so it’s important — and the principals need to understand this — that what’s being done virtually, that’s what’s being done in the classroom. So that can be a seamless move; we don’t want it to become an impediment to coming back to school.

Holst added that enrollment at the district’s REACH Homeschool was up significantly — possibly as high as 72 students. He guessed that many families were considering organizing their own neighborhood schools around the homeschool curriculum — an idea which Holst did not discourage. He encouraged Sitka families opting for correspondence school to “shop locally” and to enroll in REACH, rather than choosing an out-of-state correspondence program.

School is scheduled to open in Sitka on Thursday, August 27. Under the district’s “Smart Start” plan, teaching will take place both in-person and online as long as there are no more than 12 new cases of coronavirus within a two-week period in Sitka — in that event, all instruction will move online. (The district publishes the daily case count calendar on its homepage.) The district plans to provide every student through grade 8 with an Apple iPad, and students in the high schools will have laptops.