Utah public education enrollment numbers are down for the first time this year since 2000, but professors from BYU’s McKay School of Education remain confident the state of public education will eventually return to normalcy. (S. Hermann/Pixabay)

Utah’s public education enrollment numbers declined this year for the first time since 2000, according to data released by the Utah State Board of Education earlier this month.

Additional findings from the board included a 20% decline in enrollment at Provo School District and up to a 67% enrollment increase at various online charter schools amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The data also indicated an 80% single-year increase in online school enrollment throughout the state. In all, the board’s headcount indicates a total enrollment of 665,306 students throughout the state, down 0.23% from a year ago.

Despite the current shift away from traditional learning methods, faculty members from BYU’s McKay School of Education remain confident the state of public education will eventually return to normalcy and may even emerge from the pandemic better off than before.  

“I don’t believe that the brick and mortar version of school will end any time soon,” BYU professor of teacher education Melissa Newberry said. “If anything, we may see a surge in enrollment once the pandemic ends. Enrollment is down because of parental concerns, but, given the choice and an assurance that all is safe many students would like to return to in-person class environments.”

Ryan Nixon, a fellow teacher education professor at BYU, believes most teachers are just as eager to return to a traditional in-person classroom environment when safe to do so. When that time comes, Nixon feels teachers will be better equipped to help their students learn through a variety of technological aids.

Nixon, however, also hopes students and teachers can further appreciate the value of in-person interactions and learning experiences moving forward.

“The teachers I talk to are finding that this pandemic is highlighting the importance of normal, old-fashioned, face-to-face interaction,” Nixon said. “I think, and hope, that we’ll better learn what can be done with technology while also learning to value what can’t be done with technology.”

Richard Osguthorpe, another BYU teacher education professor, also feels the pandemic has highlighted the value of teachers and the overall public education system. While computers and other technological advancements can assist the learning process, Osguthorpe believes “nothing is more important in education than the teacher.”

Osguthorpe also touched on the various societal functions public education can serve in addition to academic learning that he hopes people will better appreciate in the future.

“(Schools) also provide a place for social-emotional learning, physical education, art appreciation, athletic training, character development, etcetera, as well as serve important caretaker and economic functions,” Osguthorpe said.

Utah lawmakers did cut education spending over the summer in response to the pandemic, prompting additional parents to seek out alternate learning options such as micro-schools and learning pods among others. However, Newberry noted alternate learning options have had a firm hold within Utah for several years already. She feels there seems to be a sense of distrust toward public education among several people, especially with the federal government’s increased focused on standardized testing over the last 20 years.

Newberry noted some families don’t have the means to explore alternate schooling options, but she expects some of those who do to keep their children involved in such learning methods after branching out during the pandemic.

“I do think there will probably be an uptick in online options for students who excelled at the online version and who want to get through school faster,” Newberry said. “Online options were already making some gains, but it is not the best learning environment for all students.”

Nixon’s thoughts echoed Newberry’s, adding that for many students, school is one of the few places where they are routinely surrounded by people notably different than them. Nixon feels a classroom is a unique place where students can learn a variety of social skills, including how to respectfully disagree and get along with others, and hopes families realize that moving forward.

“Having some children pulled out of these neighborhood schools to be in these pods, micro-schools, etcetera, may help them have better academic outcomes, but I think they’re missing out on opportunities for important life lessons,” Nixon said. “I can see how this is a challenging choice during the pandemic, but I hope many who have opted out will return to public schools.”

Looking ahead, Newberry expects students and parents alike to be more appreciative of all the work teachers put into making lesson plans and creating a learning environment. Especially among parents who have tried to help their kids with online schoolwork, Newberry feels the pandemic has given people a better idea of what teachers experience on a daily basis.

Although it has been a struggle for many of Newberry’s students and aspiring teachers to adapt to virtual teaching methods, she feels they will now be better able to handle a variety of unexpected changes in the future. She hopes families can see how committed teachers are to helping their students obtain an education.

Nixon also touched on the importance of valuing teachers moving forward, especially as many have quit or delayed getting into the profession due to COVID-19 concerns. Ryan mentioned there have already been consistent teacher shortages in recent years, and that the apparent lack of concern for teacher health from school administrators in some cases has sent a negative message.

“If we don’t take care of our teachers, they cannot take care of our children,” Nixon said.

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