Mask mandate ends, but public school enrollment continues to decline

(Brett Davis | The Center Square) – On Wednesday, Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal issued a press release calling for an end to the mask mandate in public…

(Brett Davis | The Center Square) – On Wednesday, Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal issued a press release calling for an end to the mask mandate in public schools. It came out two days before a draft report went public showing public school enrollment in the state continues to decrease below forecasts.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a statewide indoor mask mandate has been in place since Aug. 23, 2021. In September, an outdoor mask mandate was put in place for events with 500 or more people.

“As part of the transition from pandemic to endemic, I believe it is safe and timely to eliminate the statewide masking requirement for students and allow for a decision by local health officials,” Reykdal said in the press release put out just prior to Gov. Jay Inslee’s virtual press conference announcing a Feb. 18 end to the outdoor mask mandate. “I recommend the Governor and Department of Health change the guidance to reflect this in the coming weeks.”

As such, he went on to say, “Cases and hospitalizations are expected to fall substantially in the coming weeks, and this gives us an opportunity to revisit the benefits and downsides to our current mitigation strategies, including universal masking in schools.”

Masks or no masks, it seems there will be fewer than expected students in Washington’s public schools.

On Friday, the Washington State Caseload Forecast Council (CFC) publicly released its draft forecasts report showing K-12 enrollment continues to do worse than expected.

The 54-page report assumes a shift in enrollment trajectory and slower growth trends than occurred pre-pandemic, with public school enrollment projected to be below 2016 levels, per page 2 of the report.

“As a reminder, the forecast assumes, from November and continuing this February, assumes a shift – that the students that left K-12, most of them are not going to necessarily return,” explained CFC senior forecaster Paula Moore during a same-day virtual meeting of the CFC. “That we’re going to have, rather than a bounce back, we’re going to have the traditional year-over-year growth patterns going forward. So, we assume about a 0.6% growth for next year. That’s based on the fact that we saw students continue to leave from last year to this school year.”

Moore noted a major increase in homeschooling in 2021, which she seemingly tried to explain away.

“We received additional data, and while homeschooling doubled last year, it’s still 10,000 students above, approximately, and most of those students were absorbed by the private schools this year,” she said. “So, it’s above pandemic levels and that the private schools increased this year. So that is likely to be the trajectory going forward.”

Meanwhile, a December poll of 500 local voters conducted by the Washington Policy Center (WPC) showed 71% of respondents in favor of school choice.

Liv Finne, director of the WPC’s Center for Education, thinks there’s a connection between Reykdal’s press release against the student mask mandate and anemic enrollment numbers.

“Falling enrollment numbers are worrying superintendent Reykdal,” she told The Center Square in an email. “School funding is dependent on enrollment, so Reykdal and the education establishment have a financial incentive to remove unpopular mandates like the mask mandate.”

She concluded, “SB 5563 and HB 1590, its companion bill, currently under consideration by current legislature, would provide $644 million in extra funding to the schools for this loss of enrollment, to fund students they no longer serve.”