Pandemic-Induced Enrollment Spikes? Not Yet, Local School Officials Say

Pierson Middle-High School

One of the urban legends accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic has been that wealthy New Yorkers are fleeing the city, pulling their children out of expensive private schools, and enrolling them in local public schools as they seek refuge in second homes or newly obtained rentals on the East End.

After all, such was the case in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when some New Yorkers decided to leave the city for greener pastures and a greater sense of security on the East End.

While that scenario may, in fact, develop in the months ahead if the coronavirus does not subside, school superintendents interviewed this week said that while they have fielded some inquiries from newly arriving families, they were largely informal in nature — and nowhere near as numerous as repeated on the social media grapevine.

In Sag Harbor, for instance, the whispered number had been that as many as 200 more children would be enrolled in Sag Harbor public schools by September. But Superintendent Jeff Nichols said this week that number had been wildly exaggerated.

“I know we have seen an increase in inquiries,” he said, estimating that the district had received about 10 percent of that number, or about 20 inquiries, with seven calls from parents interested in enrollment at Pierson Middle-High School, and another dozen showing interest in the elementary school.

Mr. Nichols, who is also the high school principal, estimated that the middle school and high school could conceivably accommodate an additional 50 students but said he did not want to offer an estimate as to how many new students could be safely absorbed by the elementary school, given that students there typically stay in one classroom for most of the school day.

Besides the effect an influx of new students would have on students-to-teacher ratios, Mr. Nichols said the school would have to take into consideration how it is going to “adhere to social distancing guidelines, which will place a premium on space and limit the district’s ability to accept additional students from out of district.

“Ultimately, the discussion has to take place at the board level,” he said.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal reported that 30 city families had reached out to the Bridgehampton School to inquire about its offerings. But Superintendent Robert Hauser said this week those were informal, spur-of-the moment conversations.

“Each day, people come to the school because they want to use the basketball court or the track, or playground, and I have to go out to tell them the facilities are off limits,” he said.

Typically, he added, the conversation turns to the addition that is being constructed, and the visitors ask about the school. “I’ve had about 30 of those conversations,” he said, “but we are not seeing any of them follow through in terms of contacting the school about tuition and enrolling.”

He said he believed some city residents will make the move if their children’s schools do not reopen in the fall and they are left with paying private school costs for online learning programs. “Parents are going to have a choice to make,” he said.

In the meantime, Mr. Hauser said the district’s renovation project, which was scheduled to open to students at the start of the school year, will not be ready until about November 1 because work was suspended for about six weeks early in the pandemic.

East Hampton Superintendent Richard Burns said his district “hasn’t seen much of an explosion” in the way of new enrollment applications. “We are well below 20,” he said, adding “and these are only inquiries.”

That was echoed elsewhere. Lars Clemensen, the superintendent of the Hampton Bays School, said his district was not seeing much interest from newcomers.

“We haven’t seen any spikes in enrollment at this time,” he said. “One family from Queens has indicated they intend to register two students. There’s been buzz of some more, nothing marked to report in Hampton Bays.”

“The district’s enrollment has remained steady since the closure of schools,” said Southampton Superintendent Nicholas Dyno. “We have not experienced an increase in projected enrollment for fall 2020, but will continue to monitor these figures in the coming months.”

Springs Superintendent Debra Winter said her school had only seen two new families register for the coming year. “Our kindergarten enrollment is similar to previous years,” she said.

The Amagansett School has been the exception. Superintendent Seth Turner said on Tuesday the district has received “over two dozen inquiries” from families interested in obtaining enrollment packets. “We’ve had at least 30 inquiries,” he said, “but we don’t know if they will actually enroll.”