Troy, Mo., schools see rare enrollment boost during pandemic

TROY, Mo. — A Lincoln County school district has attracted more students during the pandemic than any other district in Missouri, new state data shows.

While most school districts haven’t rebounded from a steep enrollment decline since 2019, Troy schools have added 417 students to reach nearly 7,000 in preschool through 12th grades this year, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Billboards for new home developments dot both sides of Highway 61 in Troy. Fifth grade classes at William Cappel Elementary meet in portable classrooms installed last year, and there is a waiting list for preschool. A demographer will visit the district next month to discuss the need for additional schools.

During the pandemic, the district has grown at three times the rate of neighboring Wentzville, which previously held the title of fastest growing district in the state.

Superintendent Mark Penny attributes the growth to several factors, including population spillover from Wentzville. Lincoln County grew from 52,566 residents in the 2010 census to 59,574 in 2020, with most new residents flocking to the southeastern section that borders St. Charles County. Some families have moved to Lincoln County to work remotely without needing to commute to business centers in St. Louis, he said.

But Penny believes the district’s pandemic response has been the main factor in its growth.

“I think what has made the biggest impact, and something I am incredibly proud of, is that we were open for in-person instruction on the first day of the 2020-2021 school year,” Penny said. “We saw the importance of our students being in-person, not only for instructional purposes but for the overall well-being of our students and success of our community.”

While enrollment across Missouri has been trending down in recent decades, the pandemic has accelerated the decline. In fall of 2020, when many schools started virtually, annual enrollment dropped by 3.2% for a loss of more than 28,000 students statewide.

This fall, enrollment grew by about 1% to 897,537, still short about 20,000 students from fall of 2019.

Nearly one-third of Missouri students lost during the pandemic came from school districts in St. Louis city and county. Six area districts have lost more than 10% of their student population since 2019 — Hancock Place, St. Louis Public Schools, Valley Park and these charter schools: Biome, Confluence Academies and St. Louis Language Immersion School.

Locally, only two districts in St. Louis County, Bayless and Lindbergh, have surpassed their pre-pandemic enrollments — by less than 1% each.

The five school districts in St. Charles County have added a total of 1,142 students since fall of 2019. Fox School District, the largest in Jefferson County, is down 231 students over that time.

The failure of most districts to rebound from the 2020 enrollment drop will likely bring budget cuts, because state law allows districts to use the higher attendance count from the previous two years for Missouri’s funding formula.

The enrollment decline has not been caused by an exodus of students to home-schooling or private schools. Each year, about 3.3% of Missouri’s students leave public schools because they drop out, transfer to private schools, start home-schooling independently or move to other states or countries. In the past two school years affected by the pandemic, the exit rate dropped to an average of 2.6%.

But unlike in previous years, schools have not been making up that loss with new students. The bulk of the enrollment decline during the pandemic has come from preschool and kindergarten classes, the data shows.

Because kindergarten is not required in Missouri, some families might be waiting out the pandemic before entering the public school system, said a spokeswoman for the state education department.

Students who are home-schooled through the Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program are still counted in their home district’s enrollment total. The virtual program saw a significant bump last school year, rising to 3,949 students from 1,073 in 2019-20. This year, enrollment dropped back to 2,132, or 0.2% of the state’s total enrollment, according to the education department.

Kelly Edinger’s two daughters are among that group, including one who has asthma. Edinger doesn’t feel comfortable sending them to elementary school in Lincoln County, which doesn’t have a mask mandate and just 43% of eligible residents are vaccinated against COVID-19.

Edinger said the family will likely move out of the district by next school year to somewhere she feels safer sending them to school.

“I can’t see myself trusting these people ever again,” she said. “You can’t just act like this is gone.”