EDITORIAL: Alarming enrollment drop at Ely schools

School officials, whether they are administrators or board members, haven’t had it easy the last year-and-a-half.
The Covid-19 pandemic has turned public education upside down, with not one, not two, but now three school years disrupted.
For far too long, the jobs of principals, superintendents and board members and the issues they normally work with have taken a backseat to all things Covid.
Distance and hybrid learning. Quarantines and contact tracing. Mask mandates and vaccination clinics. This isn’t what they signed up for when entering the realm of public education.
While this week’s school board meeting in Ely shows that the district still has much to do when it comes to Covid-19 and finding a path toward easing a district mask mandate and regaining public confidence and trust, there was another giant sized elephant in the room.
Normally, that elephant would have captured the attention of school officials and the community immediately, but it was almost lost amid the continued controversy and unrest over Covid mitigation.
The elephant? A second consecutive month of dismal if not outright shocking and depressing enrollment numbers.
A month after the district reported its lowest enrollment ever - a meager total of 531 students in grades K-12 - the bottom dropped out even further.
As of Monday, the Ely district had only 504 students enrolled.
The district heyday of school enrollments of of 1,500 to 1,700 students is now just a memory of a long-ago time. Even the totals of 900-plus students, recorded in the mid-1990s have long past. One might look at those numbers, compare them to today and conclude that this is just another sign of the times.
Yet it wasn’t long ago, just four years ago to be precise when the district reported 598 students. Meanwhile the fall of 2019 - the last fall prior to Covid-19 - brought 573 students to Ely.
The decline continued last fall (559) and at the start of the current school year (531), but it’s safe to say the Ely district has never lost an additional five percent of its student body from one month to the next.
That’s exactly what happened from September to October, after an exodus that almost certainly is linked to the district’s mask mandate.
Add another enrollment albatross, some 17 high school students who are counted in Ely’s total yet attend classes at Vermilion Community College, and on any given day there are fewer than 500 students walking the hallways in the buildings on Ely’s campus.
That’s not just disappointing - it’s alarming and frightening and not sustainable.
It’s obvious that healthy schools need students.
The reasons run from the tangible, schools are funded by student counts and larger student numbers make it easier to offer a wider assortment of courses, to the intangible - more children are a sign of a healthier community overall.
Yet Ely, just as construction crews show up to the campus each day to complete a $20 million renovation that includes a brand-new building, is going in the wrong direction when it comes to school enrollment.
Covid-19 aside, the enrollment numbers are the biggest threat to the future of Independent School District 696.
At least until Monday, there’s been scant attention paid to that elephant in the room and that clearly needs to change.
Public comments by several board members on Monday show, however, that the current divide and its ripple effects are being noticed.
Board member Darren Visser said it best when he noted, quite accurately and succinctly that “We’ve got to do our homework otherwise this year is going to continue to be animosity across the board.”
The Ely district is hemorrhaging students and with it the dollars it needs to run the district.
Simply writing off the loss of nearly 100 students in four years, and an unprecedented withdrawal of 27 students in a month, is unacceptable.
Counting on the state to bail the district out, or a continued reliance on federal Covid dollars that are sure to dry up, is no strategy either.
The community has been needlessly divided by overreach and we know best mandates, when collaboration and compromise were badly needed.
Parents have other choices, ranging from homeschool to an array of online academies lining up to provide alternate means of education.
Those are no substitute for what our local school district can provide, and the school can yet again rise up and fill that void.
It won’t be easy and will take effort and inclusiveness and a willingness to listen.
Board members must follow through on their words and make sure that happens. The district’s future - and in some ways our community’s future - depend on it.