Aiken County school district officials anticipate enrollment increase after pandemic drop

·3 min read

May 15—With almost 1,600 fewer students, the Aiken County Public School District's 2020-2021 enrollment stands in sharp contrast to the relatively steady numbers in the last few years.

The school district reports that 22,542 students attend Aiken County public schools, according to the district's weekly COVID-19 updates. Report cards from the state government list enrollment numbers over 24,000 for the 2017, 2018 and 2019 school years.

District officials have noted that this lower enrollment, which correlates with the COVID-19 pandemic, means there will be less state funding to work with in the 2021-2022 school year.

At Tuesday's school board meeting, Superintendent King Laurence said under normal circumstances, the school district collects information about why students are leaving — such as parents moving to a different area or switching to homeschooling.

"This year has been the exception. We have never, I don't think anybody in South Carolina or the United States has ever had this many students leave ... just prior to or at the beginning of the school year, and we anticipate most of those students coming back," Laurence said.

Laurence said some families chose charter or virtual options outside of the Aiken County Public School District due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Local mother Nicole Lane said she enrolled her child in the virtual program at Horse Creek Academy, a public charter school, instead of the Aiken Innovate program. Horse Creek Academy offered shorter virtual classroom hours and more flexibility, Lane said.

"I felt like they truly understood that parents are doing the best they can and having a strict rigid schedule is not always feasible. It has been absolutely wonderful and I am so glad we made this choice," Lane said via social media.

Lane isn't the only parent who expressed interest in the charter school, which is expanding its capacity to include high school grades.

In April, Horse Creek Academy executive director Dr. Ann Taylor said the school has 300 to 400 people on the waitlist to get in.

"Enrollment has not been an issue," Taylor said. "In fact, I think us going five days a week probably helped enrollment. Because people really wanted a five day a week option, because they had to. What do you do with your kids for work?"

The Aiken County Public School District's hybrid schedule, which had students attending two days of school per week at the beginning of the school year, caused some backlash among parents. Under the hybrid schedule, schools remained at half capacity, reducing the number of students in a classroom and allowing social distancing.

Laurence said some families chose to leave the school district for charter or private schools that offered full-time schedules.

"We (the Aiken County Public School District) know that we're not the only choice, so knowing we're not the only choice, we have to make sure that we market ourselves to the community," Laurence said at the board meeting.

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