Online attendance hovers at 90% for Shelby County Schools in first 2 weeks, but early enrollment is down

A Shelby County Schools student gets assistance from a staffer as he works remotely from the YMCA’s virtual learning center in Cordova on the first day of school.
Shelby County Schools is conducting online classes until further notice because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Jacinthia Jones / Chalkbeat)

During the first two weeks of virtual school, about 90% of Shelby County Schools students attended class on any given day. But the number of students enrolled declined by almost 5,000 students compared to last year, according to early district data. 

The preliminary enrollment numbers could represent the first decline since 2017.

As the school year kicked off in the midst of a pandemic, the percent of Memphis students attending class is slightly higher than Denver Public Schools and higher than Chicago Public Schools, which both started the school year online. It is also significantly higher than Detroit’s 78% attendance rate, where three-fourths of the student population are learning online. 

The attendance numbers suggest most students are consistently able to log on to online classes, the main form of instruction they will have for the foreseeable future. Superintendent Joris Ray said remote learning will last until the number of new coronavirus cases drops consistently into the single digits.

Last year, Tennessee’s largest district enrolled about 113,200 students in traditional and district charter schools. As of Friday, Shelby County Schools, including charter schools, enrolled about 108,500 students. While student enrollment at district-run schools have consistently declined in recent years, charter schools have driven total enrollment growth for several years. The district relies on student enrollment and attendance for county and state funding. 

District staff presented the attendance and enrollment data to school board members during a committee meeting Tuesday and noted the numbers are likely to change in the coming weeks. 

“We want to be cautious and careful to realize that these [enrollment] numbers do not reflect where we have removed any ‘no shows’ that may need to be removed,” said Bill White, the district’s executive director of planning and accountability. “We want to be cautious about what these numbers may mean at this time.”

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There are a few caveats in comparing Tuesday’s enrollment numbers with last year. The  school year started about three weeks later than normal and last year’s enrollment numbers were reported on the 40th day of school, rather than the 10th. By the 40th day last year, the district would have already taken students who were unaccounted for off school rosters, but Tuesday’s numbers include students who haven’t shown up to class yet. Shelby County Schools staff are looking to find out why almost 3,000 students have neither picked up a laptop or tablet nor attended online classes since school started Aug. 31. The district plans to take those unaccounted for students off school rosters at the end of this week. 

The district did not provide comparable attendance percentages for the beginning of last school year.

The State Board of Education sent a letter to the governor last month asking that no district lose state money if their enrollment drops. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic and the related closures have created tremendous challenges in education, and education funding and our priority list reflects this situation,” the letter said.

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