Richardson ISD parents differ on whether it’s best to send children back to school face-to-face or keep them at home for virtual instruction, but all agree – creative solutions are needed to ensure no student is left behind during this pandemic.

District enrollment figures, discussed during last week’s school board work session, indicate large numbers of students may be delaying school participation – or skipping this year altogether. On the 17th day of class, enrollment was down by 2,105 students over this time last year. That’s a 5% drop in students since 2019 and 5% fewer kids than budgeted by RISD.

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Reduced enrollment has big implications for RISD’s budget, since the state distributes about $7,000 per student, plus additional funds for kids who are economically disadvantaged or struggle with learning disorders. RISD officials are working to locate and register missing students before Oct. 30, the state’s official enrollment snapshot date. After that, RISD could lose millions.

Brenda Payne, RISD’s Assistant Superintendent of Administrative Services, said it’s not yet clear why numbers are down, but parent fears about coronavirus safety seem to top the list.

“We were kind of hearing the buzz that parents were making the decision to potentially not bring their kids to school, maybe not start in this environment,” Payne noted, “and it’s proven to be true.”

“There’s really kind of two groups,” Deputy Superintendent Tabitha Branum said of students still not participating after more than 3 weeks of instruction. There are the socio-economically disadvantaged families, “but there’s also another demographic of students whose parents made the decision to either go to private school or to homeschool, and we’re especially seeing that in the kindergarten cohort, where our parents put together learning pods or went to private schools.”

Heather Wilson said it was tough deciding not to send her children back to Moss Haven Elementary. Asher and Claire are missing 4th and 3rd grades with their friends, and little Ollie was counting on having Jade Short as his kindergarten teacher as his siblings did. Adelynn was hoping to return to Cambridge School of Dallas for 7th grade.

Wilson and her husband, Craig, enrolled Adelynn in Cambridge’s virtual learning program and signed Asher and Claire up for Texas Connections Academy, a virtual homeschool for students in grades 3-12. It’s tuition free and highly flexible, with lessons which may be watched live or viewed later as recordings. The school is no pandemic startup – it’s been around more than 20 years – and parents are invited to be heavily involved, something Wilson appreciates as a former teacher.

“Ollie gets fit in between the other kids. He gets my attention for 10-20 minutes, then he gets a non-tech break,” explained Wilson. “I am creating his curriculum. His reading and science is driven by where we are in our travels, so today we worked on ocean currents.”

The family is using travel as part of the curriculum, currently studying sea life and the effects of weather on wildlife while they vacation in Florida. Next, they’ll head to the Smoky Mountains for lessons on forests and national parks, then they’ll migrate to Colorado for a month during the winter. Monday, Wednesday and Friday are school days. Tuesday and Thursday are for field trips.

“I do like it, but it’s hard,” Wilson said. “I am very thankful I have a teaching background, but teaching other kids is so much easier than teaching your own. There have been tears, mostly mine. But in the world today this is the best plan for our house and family. My hope is numbers are down by January and that my husband feels comfortable sending the kids back to MHE.”

Michelle Bill’s decision not to send her daughter, Anna, to kindergarten is mostly about first impressions. Her oldest child has never done Mother’s Day Out or preschool outside the home, and Bill wants Anna’s first experience to be a positive one.

“I just don’t want her first time in school to be this weird COVID world,” says Bill, with students separated by masks and prohibited from receiving hugs or hands-on help from the teacher. “First impressions die hard, and I just want her to have the best chance she can loving school and loving learning straight from the gate.”

Bill also has concerns about stilted social interactions in the world of plexiglass trifolds and six-foot separation rules.

“I see her on the playground back away from kids and worry about long term implications,” said Bill. “To make that into a habit feels like it could be really damaging, at least to an impressionable tiny gal experiencing a social atmosphere like school for the first time.”

Bill said keeping Anna out creates one less possibility for transmission and frees up space for a teacher to be more present with a child whose parents don’t have the option to homeschool.

“I’m especially excited about the extra time to train her in the bible. She is an absolute sponge right now, and it’s blowing my mind to watch her begin to really grasp gospel concepts,” Bill said. “I just keep thinking, even if I fail in all academic training – and let’s be honest, I don’t love teaching handwriting or phonics – I’m confident she’ll catch up quickly in first grade.”

Suzanne Pickett says her decision not to enroll her child in RISD was made knowing COVID spikes and school closures might not be over in Dallas County.

“We decided to keep our kindergartener in the private school she has attended for the last 3-4 years,” said Pickett. “We thought that with a smaller school and generally less people in the building, [there might be] a lesser chance of forced closures. We both work full time, so consistency in care is important to us. There was no perfect plan. We are sad to miss out on the excitement of kinder in the public school, but during this time of so many unknowns, we felt more comfortable with what we knew, families we knew, etc.”

RISD officials say their focus over the next month will be to locate missing students and coax them back to class. The greatest enrollment declines have come from kindergarten, 5th and 9th grade, Payne told trustees, especially among bilingual student populations and at ACE schools with large numbers of economically disadvantaged students.

“We are hearing some pretty sad stories,” Payne said. “There are some reasons kids are sitting at home, and they need us to find them. They need us to bring them back and provide them resources.”

You can watch video of the school board work session here.