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Public school enrollment down 4% during pandemic. Where did thousands of students go?

Students in between classes at Lewiston High School. (WGME)
Students in between classes at Lewiston High School. (WGME)
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STATEWIDE (WGME) -- Thousands of students have disappeared from Maine's public schools throughout the pandemic, with enrollment dropping nearly four percent since 2020.

Administrators expected that figure to rebound this school year, but only a fraction of students returned to the classroom. There are still about 7,000 fewer students compared to pre-pandemic times.

On a recent Monday, a catchy tune helped Vaughn and Sheridan Hurd learn geography in their basement-turned-classroom.

The teacher? Their mom, Angela Hurd.

"I taught for 18 years at Belfast Area High School," Angela Hurd said.

Homeschooling was already on their radar when COVID-19 shut down schools in March of 2020. Remote learning was the nudge they needed to make the switch.

"I was the one that was nervous about homeschooling, not these guys," Angela Hurd said.

Turns out, it's a great fit for the family as they navigate second and fifth grades.

"It's a lot easier to do it, because you can do it in your own way," Vaughn Hurd said.

The Hurds aren't alone. Thousands of other students have chosen a new path and left public schools in the wake of the pandemic.

State data show last year, during the 2020-2021 school year, enrollment in Maine fell by nearly 8,000 students.

Just 684 came back this year.

"It continues to be probably the hardest prolonged period ever faced by public education here in Maine," Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin said.

Makin says the declining enrollment is part of a national trend.

So where have all those students gone?

According to state data obtained by the CBS 13 I-Team, the most common "exits" were to homeschooling, private schools and schools out of state.

"It's especially confounding because our overall state population is increasing," Makin said.

She says the demographic of Maine's newest residents could be a factor in that. It may be retirees who don't have school-aged children.

Another explanation, she says, might be virtual schools that are hosted by other states.

"We've lost some kids to online platforms," Lewiston Superintendent Jake Langlais said.

Langlais says Lewiston schools are down 240 students.

And while data shows where students went, no one can say for sure why.

Administrators suspect it's mostly related to COVID, whether it's fear of the virus or all of the changes implemented in schools. The hybrid schedules were also hard on some families.

"It's been two years since students have had a regular experience at school," Langlais said.

One reason they're watching enrollment so closely is because it impacts the budget.

"There are thousands of dollars in subsidy for each of those students," Langlais said. "You start multiplying that by 240, regardless of what the state subsidy is at that time, it starts to add up in a hurry."

When asked what the net impact will be, Makin said, "I think the net impact in general is not going to be that significant because we are adjusting. The State of Maine will be providing, again this year, 55 percent of the total cost of education."

Educators are optimistic more students will return to the classroom.

"I'm hopeful in a couple ways, as the pandemic subsides and more tools are available, that people will be more comfortable being in-person again," Langlais said.

As for the Hurd family, they plan to stick with homeschooling.

"I want to keep doing it until I get into college," Sheridan Hurd said.

While some families have found a better fit, officials worry that's not the case for everyone and some students may be falling through the cracks.

Langlais says remote learning was really difficult for some students and they may not have earned credits.

"I really worry over the next year or two, including this year, that we may lose a lot of students who just feel the mountain's too high to climb," Langlais said.

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There are efforts underway at both the local and state levels to reach those students, bring them back to school and hopefully find a path forward.

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