Goochland public schools opened last month under a fully virtual plan, with only a few students with limited internet access at home reporting to school buildings. (NBC12 via Goochland County Public Schools)

Since the start of the school year in August, Radford City Schools have lost around 75 students compared to enrollment counts last May, according to district Superintendent Robert Graham. Across the state in Middlesex County, public schools are down roughly 47 students, said Superintendent Pete Gretz.

Attendance at King William County Public Schools has dropped about 150 students, according to Superintendent David White. Those districts are far from alone. An early survey by the Virginia Association of School Superintendents — which captured responses from 113 of the state’s 133 divisions — found that public schools are facing an enrollment loss of 35,000 students so far this year.

Collectively, that drop represents a prospective loss of $146 million in basic aid funding from the state, which is based on student attendance counts — known as “average daily membership” — in September and March, said VASS Executive Director Ben Kiser. If the cuts go through, schools say they’ll be forced to make tough decisions on everything from operations to staff.

“If we don’t see significant improvement, then that’s a significant loss of potential revenue,” he added. “And if the General Assembly makes budget decisions based on current data, we worry they’ll have long-lasting impacts not only this budget year, but possibly the next biennium.”

As schools across Virginia grapple with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the early loss of students is just another challenge in an increasingly dire financial landscape. Kiser said school administrators were already concerned over a projected decline in sales tax revenue — one percent of which flows back to local districts — that could result in a total reduction of $95 million for schools across the state.

Earlier this year, legislators also passed budget language setting stricter requirements on how local divisions use state lottery funds — a significant part of their operating budgets. The new mandate requires that at least 40 percent of that funding is used for “nonrecurring” school costs such as construction, renovations, or new technology by the second year of the state’s biennial spending plan. 

“This was a change from previous years and we feel that schools need maximum flexibility in how Lottery funds are used during this crisis,” VASS legislative liaison Tom Smith wrote in an email Wednesday. And while more than $214 million in federal CARES Act funding has been directed to Virginia’s public schools — not including the money that went directly to localities — many administrators said most of those funds have been used for new expenses related to the pandemic.

“Our first installment, we used that to reimburse for meal distribution in the spring and summer,” White said. “A lot of it went to temperature monitoring devices, personal protective equipment, Wifi access spots, devices for teachers — things like that.”

“These are basically one-time funds,” he added. “They’re not going to supplant anything. They’re not going to be here next year.”

That’s left administrators increasingly worried about costs. Kiser said the superintendents’ association is currently advocating for state lawmakers to head off the potential loss of funding, either during the ongoing special session or when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. Keith Perrigan, president of the state’s Coalition of Small and Rural Schools, said one option is using last year’s enrollment counts to calculate state aid if schools continue to see a decline in students this March.

Currently, though, there’s no clear path forward. Earlier this month, a Senate committee killed a bill from Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg, that would have allowed just that during any state of emergency that disrupted in-person learning. A fiscal impact statement from the state’s Department of Planning and Budget said the legislation could “artificially inflat[e]” average daily membership for “school divisions with historically declining enrollment or reduced enrollment for reasons unrelated to the declared state of emergency.”

But Kiser said the concern for most districts is that students will re-enroll in public school after the pandemic. Some divisions, like Middlesex, are operating remotely, which makes counting attendance even more of a challenge. Gretz said his district is currently measuring enrollment by tracking how many students are logging onto its online learning platform — an imperfect method for a rural county.

“Thirty-nine percent of our students did not have access to broadband before all this started,” he added. “So, there could be some students who we haven’t totally resolved that for.”

Graham, in Radford, said his staff have been following up with families who haven’t been attending classes with the school division, which is currently rotating in groups of students for face-to-face instruction several days a week. About 15 students moved out of the district before the start of the school year, but another 30 or 40 are currently homeschooling, he added. 

Both he and White said part of the enrollment loss was linked to families who didn’t feel comfortable sending their children back to campus. But Graham also said multiple students have transferred to private schools in the area, many of which chose to fully reopen their campuses.

“Some families want their children to be 100 percent in-person, and private schools — at least the one in our area — have made that promise,” White added. “They’re saying that kids can come to school in-person all five days a week.”    

But when public schools resume their normal schedules, administrators are expecting many of those students to re-enroll — exacerbating existing budget struggles if funding levels are reduced based on attendance counts during the pandemic. White said he’s already emailed school administrators and warned them to stop all discretionary spending, even on items such as paper, which isn’t as much of a necessity this year.

“We’re gonna hold off on some of those supplies because we have to be very prudent in our expenditures moving forward,” he said. “We want to get a better idea, come budget season, of where we stand so we can maintain our faculty and staff.”

Losing employees has become a very real concern for many districts if state funding decreases. Earlier this week, Graham sent an email to Virginia Superintendent James Lane and his local representatives, Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, and Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell, urging them to keep considering possible solutions. Kiser said that with 80 to 85 percent of school expenses tied up in staffing, budget cuts often have a direct impact on employees.

“We do not want to make reductions,” Graham added. “Our teachers are working their butts off right now, and we cannot send the message that even with all that work, we might have to furlough them.”