The Fulton County School System recorded its largest enrollment drop on record for this school year of 3,572 students, with enrollment in Sandy Springs schools dropping by 422. The pandemic is getting the blame for a decline that was larger than projected.

The school district had 3,310 fewer students enrolled than it expected, said Yngrid Huff, executive director of the school district’s Operational Planning Department, at a March 9 work session of the Fulton County Board of Education. Sandy Springs’ enrollment was 286 students lower than the school district expected, based on the annual FCS Enrollment Projection Report.

Fulton County Schools enrollment has been on the decline for four years. (FCS)

“This abnormal drop in enrollment can be attributed to enrollment challenges related to the global pandemic crisis, for many parents have grappled with decisions on when and where to enroll their children, particularly incoming younger students entering primary grades,” she said.

The first-month enrollment for the entire school district for the 2020-2021 school year was 90,376. It was 93,948 in the previous year, and 94,665 in the 2018-2019 school year.

The report said all metro districts experienced enrollment declines for the 2020-2021 school year due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

FCS enrollment was 3.53% below projections, a percentage Huff said the school district has not seen since the 2008 housing bubble burst.

More students may be enrolled in private schools or are being home-schooled. For the private schools that report enrollment figures, FCS calculated that private school enrollment has grown from 10,560 in 2018-19, with 11,121 reported in 2019-20. For this school year, 11,290 students were attending private schools. Sandy Springs had more than 3,700 students enrolled in private schools this academic year.

Home schooling increased by 22% in the school district this year with 2,594 students compared to the 2,127 a year earlier. Sandy Springs bucked the trend, with the 250 students being home-schooled falling 30 short of the previous year.

Many students leave private schools to enroll in public school starting with ninth grade.

“Redevelopment and affordability in the region are having an impact on future enrollment while private school return at 9th grade appears to be the positive driver for enrollment,” Huff said in the report.

“It seems like in Sandy Springs a lot of kids go to private for middle school and then ninth grade is the big growth here, but I can’t kind of see that reflected in the numbers,” board member Gail Dean said.

In Sandy Springs the greatest enrollment drop was for elementary schools, with 368 fewer students than in the previous academic year. Middle schools increased enrollment by 22 students, but high schools saw a decline of 76 students. Total enrollment in schools based in the city was 9,693 students.

Schools in North Fulton – the area north of the Chattahoochee River – had a decline of 2,348 students to 46,764. Schools in South Fulton dropped by 802 students to reach 33,919 students.

Next year, FCS officials project an enrollment increase by 1.7%. Sandy Springs schools are projected to add 29 students. But by the 2025-2026 school year, the district projects an enrollment decline of 729 students in the city. In that five-year forecast, total enrollment would fall below 90,000.

Dean joined fellow board member Katie Reeves in expressing concern that enrollment projections in the coming years aren’t reflecting the housing market.

“If there’s an affordable house on the market in Sandy Springs, it’s gone,” Dean said. “I mean, it doesn’t last for two seconds, right?”

The district uses enrollment forecasts for planning purposes and budget development. Short-range estimates help identify resource needs such as staffing, textbooks, buses, groceries, and classroom needs such as modular or portable classrooms. Long-range estimates guide the capital construction plan and help set the timeline for construction projects.

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.