Johnson County schools experienced the largest decline in student enrolment in the past 25 years. Certainly some of that decline can be attributed to community demographics, including an aging population and families moving out of the district for economic reasons.
Still, the 61-student enrolment decline is more than twice the largest decline in 25 years.
And there’s likely a reason for that.
Last spring’s switchover from in-person to online learning was challenging. It was difficult for teachers who had little to no time or training to make the switch and nearly impossible for parents and students to navigate the new online systems. Different technology platforms were used, oftentimes in the same grade level. Simply put, it was difficult.
However, no one could place blame on the schools. Teachers did the best that they could given the circumstances. And, for the most part, the community understood how difficult it was for the schools to make this quick change.
As schools closed for the summer, parents and students were confident that given the proper time for planning, the schools would be prepared for a variety of scenarios this fall.
While other districts across the state including Sheridan, Campbell, Park, Natrona, Albany and even Weston counties were implementing major changes to their curriculums to offer vastly superior online options and communicating this to their constituents, Superintendent Jim Wagner continued to tell the Buffalo Bulletin there were just too many unknowns to make concrete plans.
We doubt area businesses felt the same. Many restaurants quickly began offering curbside or delivery services or invested money in drive-through windows. Others offered different products or services to meet the needs of our area during the pandemic.
The lack of planning or, at least, communicating the plan, led to uncertainty for parents. Would masks be required at all times? What will trigger a school closure? If kids in one family attend multiple schools, what would necessitate them all staying at home? That uncertainty led to some parents opting out of in-person learning in our district.
Sheridan County, on the other hand, communicated early what their COVID plans were. They also spent time and money to develop a rigorous online academy to offer families a choice. They knew that no matter what their plan, some parents’ concerns might cause them to withdraw students. In order to thwart that exodus, they offered options for in school, hybrid school and greatly expanded the course offerings for the Cowboy State Virtual Academy. Further, they communicated to their constituents that teachers would be properly trained for any hybrid or online learning, providing a minimum of seven hours training for online teachers. The end result? Sheridan County saw increases in enrolment, with over 200 students from around the state enrolling in their virtual academy.
We understand the Johnson County school administration is now trying to acquire and implement an online curriculum and hopes to lure some students back. We hope they will focus on quality content and proper training. Natrona County reassigned and trained 10 teachers to solely teach online curriculum. While JCSD1 does not have the same resources, certainly something proactive can be done to offer choices and a high-quality education.
The silver lining for JCSD1 is that funding is based on a three-year rolling enrolment average. So this year’s loss of students will not cost the district over $1 million next year. However, a failure to plan is a plan to fail. We hope the school district will not make the same mistakes moving forward.