Overall enrollment in private schools rose slightly for kindergarten through 12th grade but dropped by more than 20% for preschools during the academic year that spanned the pandemic, according to a report by the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools.

The new official enrollment report provided a broad snapshot of the effect of COVID-19 on enrollment across the association’s 97 member schools statewide, with numbers varying from school to school and island to island.

Hawaii’s private schools, reflecting about 16% of the state’s school-age population, have largely set themselves apart from public schools by bringing kids back onto campus since the start of the school year. While public schools, too, are offering in-person instruction at this point, the ramp-up only began in earnest earlier this year and largely at elementary grades to start.

“It showed us that the impact of the pandemic was primarily upon preschools and that many more parents were willing to return their children to elementary and high school,” Phil Bossert, executive director of HAIS, said Monday in an interview.

“In our discussions, we’re feeling that probably more Oahu people had the capacity to keep their children at home than maybe the neighbor island people did,” he added.

St. Ann School early learning class with students and the plastic barriers as protection during in person class.
A drop in preschool enrollment accelerated the upcoming closure of St. Ann School, the state’s oldest Catholic school located in Kaneohe. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

For the first time, the association broke down the enrollment report by grade level groupings.

K-12 private schools had 30,306 students enrolled in 2020-21, compared with 30,284 in the previous year, a less than 1% increase, according to the report. It showed that elementary and high school grades saw a respective 3% and 0.6% bump in enrollment from last year, while the middle grades, or 6-8, saw a 3% decline this past year.

Meanwhile, preschools saw enrollment drop nearly 23% from 3,283 in 2019-20 to 2,542 this academic year, according to the report.

Honolulu preschools, for instance, had 230 fewer pre-K students this year than last, an 18.5% drop. Leeward Oahu schools saw 146 fewer pre-K students, down 34%, and Hawaii island preschools had 96 fewer kids, 35% fewer than the previous year.

These figures are different from an earlier, informal survey of preschools HAIS conducted as they reflect more responses from member schools and include more recent totals through February, Bossert said.

The HAIS report blamed the pandemic and subsequent guidelines imposed by Hawaii’s Department of Human Services for the overall drop in enrollment.

At the onset of the pandemic, DHS initially ordered no more than 10 pre-K students per teacher, which minimized space. It later relaxed those restrictions but continued to require that pre-K students be kept in separate groups with dedicated staff.

At Christian Liberty Academy, a pre-K-12 school on Hawaii island, the number of total pre-schoolers went down from 36 last year to 23 this year.

Changing Classrooms

School officials reduced the number of preschool classrooms from three to two. The school has been offering in-person instruction since August and at first, many families feared sending their preschoolers back to the classroom too soon, said the elementary school administrator, Andrea Shrinski.

“At the beginning of the year, (preschool for 3-year-olds) started with just five, now it’s up to 11 (kids),” she said. “As the year progressed, and (COVID-19 case) numbers have been going down, we have been getting more families in need of child care.”

The drop in preschool enrollment also accelerated the upcoming closure of St. Ann School, the state’s oldest Catholic school located in Kaneohe on Oahu, following the end of this school year.

But not all schools have seen a drop in preschool enrollment. Maui Preparatory Academy had a waitlist of 15 pre-K kids during a year of record overall student enrollment in the wake of prolonged distance learning at public schools, combined with newly relocated families from outside the state.

“I would say right now, we’re looking at an even dispersion among mainland families who’ve come to seek refuge (from the pandemic) and local families who are frustrated by the (Hawaii) Department of Education and the public schools not being open,” said Liz Turcik, Maui Prep’s director of admissions.

The pre-K-12 school has 275 students enrolled this year, compared with 219 students last year. In prior years, enrollment was “hovering between 200 and 210,” Turcik said.

“We anticipate this upcoming year to be the same” as far as high enrollment, she added.

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