NORTH FULTON—Enrollment in the Fulton County School System has inched up over the past few months to fill much of the estimated 3,500-student deficit from the start of the year.

The district projected an enrollment this year of 93,700 students before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.  Instead, enrollment in August came in just over 89,000 students with most of the loss seen in the lower grades, primarily kindergarten.

That was expected, say district leaders. The district began the year with remote instruction because of the pandemic, and the state does not require students to attend school until age 6.

Chief Academic Officer Cliff Jones said the enrollment tide is now turning. Since August, nearly 2,500 new students have enrolled, primarily in kindergarten and 9th grade, which he attributes to the return of face-to-face learning.

The deficit, however, remains primarily in kindergarten classrooms. The school system estimated 6,000 kindergartners would enroll for the 2020-21 school year. Only 5,000 have enrolled to date.

“Families are making the choice to either hold their children back or find alternate education venues,” Jones said. “The children are there. They’re just not with us.”

The challenge moving forward, he noted, is the potential impact on Fulton Schools when those students return to the classroom.

“Right now we cannot assess the current level of instruction those 1,000 children are getting in their homes, daycare or other settings,” Jones said. “But we know we will receive them back. We are confident those kids [will return].”

He said the return will have an impact on the budget next year, as well as create a “demographic bubble” of students with possible education needs to address year after year.

“Our challenge is how we as a school system will meet the needs of those students, not just next year but [in future years],” Jones said. “That is a conversation we are having now.”

The option to return to classrooms began in mid-October with about 60 percent of students returning for face-to-face instruction.

Jones said the spectrum of differences across the district represents the diversity of the population.

“It means our families are valuing our options to select the one that best meets the needs of their children,” Jones said. “And that we are offering a selection process that is high quality.”

Candy Waylock is an award winning education reporter who has covered all things education for Appen Media over the past 20 years. She is an Alpharetta resident.

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