Enrollment numbers are inching upward in Wadena area school districts as COVID-19 mitigation measures relaxed. In the 2020-21 school year, districts were down students due to online learning options and concerns on masks and health.

While the uncertainty of the pandemic continues, the districts are glad to have in-person learning. The Pioneer Journal asked area school leaders about enrollment through a survey, which could be filled out electronically, via email or over the phone.

“I still believe public education is the one of the best settings for students to receive a quality education. I also believe every school in our county provides a opportunity for all students to receive a great education. It ultimately is dependent on the students whether they take advantage of the opportunities in our schools or chose to disengage,” Sebeka Superintendent David Fjeldheim wrote. “COVID-19 has provided challenges for our schools, although it has also opened additional avenues as to how information will be presented and learned in future years.”

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At Wadena-Deer Creek, the K-12 enrollment numbers went up 57 students. The district had seen a decrease of about 30 students at the start of the 2020-21 school year.

“Enrollment numbers look good right now, and up from last fall even and up significantly from last spring,” Superintendent Lee Westrum shared with the school board on Sept. 20. “We’re definitely up. We ended up having to order some more Chromebooks … that’s a good sign.”

The ever-changing aspects of the pandemic still leave districts with lower numbers than pre-pandemic. At Verndale, the number of students went from 512 to 515 between the school years. The district ended with 501 students in May 2021.

“We saw a small increase in student enrollment compared to how we ended the school year in May. We have 42 students in kindergarten this year, which is a nice addition to our school,” Superintendent Paul Brownlow wrote. “We continue to monitor enrollment trends because there has been a decrease in student enrollment since the pandemic began. Prior to the pandemic we were at 550 students.”

Although the change in enrollment isn’t fully related to the pandemic, the Staples-Motley school district saw a decrease of 43 students. The 2020-21 school year had 980 students enrolled and the 2021-22 school year has 937 students as of Oct. 2021.

“Our main decrease in enrollment results from a larger graduating class last year and a small incoming kindergarten class,” administrative assistant Bonnie Madson wrote. “Some families have chosen on-line options or homeschooling, but not a significant number.”

With enrollment numbers hovering around the same of 453 students for the last two school years, Sebeka has 30 less students than prior to the pandemic.

“Parents and students are discovering additional ways of receiving an education and some are exercising their right to go a different direction than the public school setting. The traditional educational setting of public schools does not necessarily align anymore with everyone's philosophy of how a education should be received,” Fjeldheim wrote. “The availability of attending at different times of the day, opportunities to work during the day and attending to classes in the evening, along with philosophical differences related to political differences of how and what is to be taught in public schools has also become a factor in moving to different educational opportunities to receive a high school diploma.”

After dropping about 200 students in fall 2020, Menahga has gained 98 students with an enrollment of 985. The 2020-21 school year started at 887.

“It was great to see our building at the capacity it was built for. The place was buzzing with energy,” Superintendent Kevin Wellen shared with the Park Rapids Enterprise about the first day of school. “A big thank you to everyone for their flexibility and patience as we get back to our ‘old normal’ with some new twists.”