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The student population in Berkshire County has been shrinking for years. The pandemic hasn't really changed that

After a steep decline during COVID's early days, enrollment in public schools has resumed its gradual slide

teaching the alphabet in kindergarten

A kindergarten student works on learning the alphabet at Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School in Great Barrington. Berkshire County’s K-12 enrollment decreased from 14,284 during the 2020-21 academic year to 14,125 this year, but kindergarten enrollment countywide jumped 9 percent this year. Pre-kindergarten enrollment rose 60 percent, an increase of more than 200 students.

Berkshire County public school enrollment fell 1.1 percent from last year, according to new data released by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The county’s K-12 enrollment decreased from 14,284 during the 2020-21 academic year to 14,125 this year.

That drop, relatively small compared with most years, comes on the heels of severe student losses when the coronavirus pandemic first hit. Enrollment now has fallen 4.4 percent below pre-pandemic levels.

“My big-picture takeaway is that, overall, the decline continues,” said Jake Eberwein, project manager for the Berkshire County Education Task Force. “I think it’s important that people understand that our school-age population is shrinking.”

The current student count aligns with pre-pandemic enrollment projections, according to Eberwein. Estimates from the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission show Berkshire County enrollment falling below 12,000 students by 2030.

Eberwein says it remains too early to say precisely what impact the pandemic will have on the county’s population. But, this year’s numbers suggest that the pandemic might not have any dramatic impacts, positive or negative, on the long-term future of county schools.

“It doesn’t look to me like there’s anything that suggests that the pandemic has created an influence one way or another this year,” he said. “Anecdotally, we had a few families come into the county. We saw a couple families go into private school, and a little migration into home-school space. But, nothing seems to be sticking in a substantial way.”

Though overall K-12 enrollment declined, kindergarten enrollment across Berkshire County jumped up 9 percent this year. Prekindergarten enrollment rose 60 percent, an increase of more than 200 students.

That suggests, as The Eagle has reported, that many younger children remained at home last year and returned to public schools this fall.

But, pre-K and kindergarten enrollment remain below pre-pandemic levels.

North Adams Public Schools and the Mount Greylock Regional School District, which had faced the county’s steepest enrollment declines during the first year of the pandemic, gained back students this year. Pittsfield Public Schools enrollment declined by more than 100 students — a smaller decline than last year, but still a substantial decrease.

The county has lost hundreds of students since the 2019-20 school year, declines felt by almost every major school district.

Berkshire Hills and Northern Berkshire Regional Vocational were the only two major districts that did not lose students during that two-year period.

Justin Kratz, principal at McCann Technical School, credited the school’s faculty, as well as high interest in vocational education, as factors in Northern Berkshire Regional Vocational’s steady enrollment.

“There’s certainly an understanding that the skilled trades are high in demand and offer career paths that provide very livable wages,” he said.

girl practicing math skills

Kindergarteners at Muddy Brook develop study skills. Peter Dillon, superintendent of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, says "high-quality, engaging learning opportunities" and the district's sense of community helped keep enrollment steady, even as the coronavirus pandemic hit county and state schools hard.

Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon suggested that school choice, and a slight influx of new families with children, likely helped that district remain steady.

“We work very hard to meet students where they are,” he said. “We’re excited about this emerging trend.”

From Eberwein’s perspective, pandemic-induced moves might have added a few students here and there, but the enrollment declines in much of South County suggest that many of the county’s newcomers arrived without children.

“I was hearing from people that pandemic in-migration, remote workers, were going to solve all our problems,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the case.”

Francesca Paris can be reached at fparis@berkshireeagle.com and 413-447-7311, ext. 239.

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