Many families who pulled children out of Evanston/Skokie School District 65 during the COVID-19 pandemic have come back, a new report to the board of education says.

However, it’s not enough to cancel out the district’s ongoing enrollment decrease.

In the report, the district’s director of student assignments, Sarita Smith, says, “We finally see relief from the COVID-19 decline in 2020-21 and 2021-22.”

Families left District 65 during the pandemic for several reasons. Private and religious schools re-opened for in-person learning a lot sooner, which attracted more applicants. Other parents were unhappy with curriculum changes under the then-superintendent, Devon Horton, and left for private institutions, parochial schools, or even home schooling.

Many also switched to other public schools.

But Smith’s data now indicates that close to 400 students who left District 65 since the pandemic hit in 2020 have come back, with large increases in 2022-23 and 2023-24.

School yearReturning from private schoolsReturning from public schoolsTotal returning
Source: District 65 Enrollment Projections report

“It is evident that we have gained back some of the students who left for private school during the COVID years,” Smith says, “and we have specifically seen a stark difference in the past two years.”

“This is the first year since 2020 that our enrollment variance was not in the hundreds,” Smith notes. In other words, enrollment projections are now much closer to what ends up as the actual numbers.

For District 65, that’s the good news.

The bad news, however, is that the number of returnees is not enough to negate normal attrition.

“We have seen some enrollment relief,” the report explains, “but it won’t offset the trends of total enrollment reductions that began before COVID-19.”

D65 is impacted by such things as “birth rates, residential construction/demolition, family mobility … and economic changes,” as well as the normal churn of families leaving for other school options that have nothing to do with COVID.

Actual enrollment this year (as of Oct. 1) is 5,974 in grades K-8, continuing what has become a 20% decrease since 2018.

And the drop won’t stop.

According to an independent demographic study done for the district last year, D65 is projected to have only 5,096 K-8 students in 2032, in a district with a capacity of 9,234 kids across 18 buildings.

Smith’s report was on the Curriculum and Policy Committee agenda for Monday, but it is being held for discussion until the full school board meeting next Monday, so all board members can take part in the discussion.

“It is imperative,” Smith says, “that we need to begin planning for this decrease.”

So even without controversies over the new 5th Ward School and the future of the Bessie Rhodes magnet program, closing some schools seems inevitable.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Leave a comment

The goal of our comment policy is to make the comments section a vibrant yet civil space. Treat each other with respect — even the people you disagree with. Whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims.