San Jose Unified sees fewer older students return to classrooms

Students returning to the classroom are finding themselves with a lot fewer classmates around.

New numbers from the South Bay's largest school district show the vast majority of older students chose to remain at home.

In fact, only one in five high school students in the San Jose Unified School District opted to come back for in-person classes.

At Willow Glen Middle School in San Jose, about one third of students chose to return to campus when in-person instruction started Wednesday.

"On a fully enrolled year, we're right at 1300 students. Right now for in-person instruction, we're enrolled at about 460," said principal Paul Slayton.

The principal says under the current health guidelines, in-person classes are limited to 15 students maximum.

But Slayton says some classes have as few as four students in them, while the other 26 classmates are learning via an online platform.

San Jose Unified School District's spokeswoman says 44% of elementary students returned for in-person classes, but the numbers dropped further with older students.

Only 32% of middle school students returned, and only 20% of high school students chose to come back for the last six weeks of the school year.

"We seem to be seeing that in most places, even when schools re-open, some proportion of students are not coming back," said Alix Gallagher, the Director of Strategic Partnerships with Policy Analysis for California Education or PACE.

PACE, the independent, non-partisan research center looks at education in California and is looking ahead to fall.

With concerns about academic, social and emotional deficits among students, the group is working on guidelines to suggest a so-called "restorative restart" for schools.

"Understanding that kids, especially teenagers (and) adolescents, really need those relationships in place in order to make academic progress," said Gallagher.

Heidi Emberling's 17-year-old daughter Sarah, who is a senior at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, decided to stay home.

"For my daughter, the decision to stay at home was a personal one. She's comfortable with her set-up, she has strong internet access and she really likes accessing the refrigerator," said Emberling.

But Emberling, who is the director of the social services agency Parents Place at the Center for Children and Youth, says returning in-person should be a priority for students who have faced additional challenges such as depression and anxiety from not being in touch with their peers.

"I think for those students, the in-person experiences are critical to their mental health," said Emberling.

Looking ahead to fall, researchers say school will not only have to focus on those students who are now behind academically but also deal with enforcing discipline again.

One suggestion researchers have for the fall is to have students return early and spend the first part of the school year focusing on building relationships and trust between families and schools, instead of academics.

As for enrollment, numbers released by San Jose Unified show enrollment dropped by about 850 students compared to the prior school year.

A district spokeswoman says the biggest reason behind the drop was because of a decrease in TK and Kindergarten enrollment, followed by students who chose to attend school in other states, elsewhere in California, or in private school.