As the county's population has grown, overall enrollment in K-12 schools has been steadily increasing in Kern County for a decade — until last year.
When schools opened their campuses to full in-person instruction this fall, it was an open question whether "missing" students would return.
Local high schools, which were spared the pandemic's biggest enrollment dips, have continued to grow. But a review of the largest local elementary school districts demonstrates that not all schools are back to enrollment levels recorded before schools switched to distance learning.
There were 3,600 fewer students enrolled across the county during the 2020-21 year, according to Robert Meszaros, spokesman for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools. There were 2,747 fewer students just in kindergarten, a grade level that is not required in California.
"Likely, with the uncertainly of COVID and distance learning, some parents chose not to enroll in [kindergarten] and wait until their first-grade year," he noted.
Kern County wasn't alone in seeing its numbers drop during the pandemic. Because enrollment and attendance numbers slid throughout the state, the state funded most schools assuming pre-pandemic attendance to stabilize school funding.
But this year there is no such "hold harmless" clause in the state budget. That means not only are students who don't show up missing out on their education and the services offered at school, but their absence — or return — is affecting campuses' funding.
The Kern High School District didn't see any dip during the pandemic, and it has only continued to grow this year. It has 42,967 students, which includes its 18 comprehensive high schools, continuation schools and other sites. That's a 3.7 percent increase from 2019-20.
"This year, we are experiencing the highest enrollment numbers in the Kern High School District’s history," said Erin Briscoe-Clark. "To accommodate our growing communities, we are proud to be opening our 19th comprehensive high school, Del Oro High School, in the fall of 2022."
Local elementary school districts, if they've had any growth, haven't seen it at the same levels as the high school district.
Panama-Buena Vista Union School District, which opened Highgate Elementary this year to accommodate population growth, dipped about 3 percent during the pandemic. But it's just about recovered: It currently has 18,836 students enrolled, which is just 50 students shy of where it was before the pandemic, according to Jennifer Irvin, assistant superintendent educational services.
The story is different at Bakersfield City and Greenfield Union school districts.
BCSD lost the most students during the pandemic. Its enrollment declined about 6 percent.
"We believe the enrollment decline is related to concern over sending students to school amidst a pandemic," wrote district spokeswoman Tabatha Mills.
This year it has regained some of those students. But with 29,284 students, it's still down about 1,500 from 2019-20. That's a 4.9 percent dip.
Greenfield Union has lost 110 students since last year. Superintendent Ramón Hendrix reports having 9,254 students enrolled, a roughly 4 percent decline from 2019-20.