Even putting aside the impact of the pandemic, the drop in enrollment in the Monomoy Regional School District is alarming.
As we reported last week, the district has 102 fewer pupils this fall than last school year. Families opting to home school their kids account for a large percentage of that figure – 55 students, according to Superintendent Scott Carpenter. But there are also 20 new students who are living in summer homes or with grandparents who preferred attending the Monomoy schools rather than their home districts. In addition, five local students who previously attended the Nauset schools returned to Monomoy.
That leaves a big drop that can't be explained by the pandemic. A quick look at last year's enrollment figures show why. Chatham Elementary School had 204 students in the 2019-2020 school year, according to the district's state school profile. Figures released by the school district last week put the current enrollment at the school at 161. The numbers are particularly stark at the lower grades. This year's kindergarten class, for instance, was originally projected to include 11 Chatham kids, but when school began, there were nine Chatham residents; the single 16-member kindergarten class was fleshed out by four Harwich kids and three school choice students. Chatham's pre-K program has only five students. Enrollment at Harwich Elementary School is also down, with 17 kids in pre-K, compared to 53 last year. The figures are slightly better at the middle school, where there was a smaller drop. The high school alone shows an increase in enrollment this year, mainly due to the population bubble in the eighth grade, with 184 students by far the biggest class in the district, 26 more than its closest competitor, the 158-student sixth grade.
There's no indication this downward trend in the lower grades will change in the near future. This is not a new problem, but it seems to be getting worse faster than anticipated and is only being exacerbated by the pandemic. Even if the pandemic continues in either a steady or worsening state, families with children are not likely to flock to the area (even if they do, their kids can still attend their home school districts remotely, as soon as already doing) and real estate prices are going nowhere but up, pricing out most young families.
This fall, the Monomoy District did an excellent job in pivoting its programs to accommodate the pandemic. But there are big changes ahead, pandemic or no pandemic, that have both educational and fiscal implications. School officials know this and have been planning ahead, but it's time to bring the discussion to officials and residents in Chatham and Harwich. Rather than annual budget fights – fewer students in Chatham shifts more of the funding burden to Harwich – there needs to be a plan on how to handle these changes. The time to start is now.