Minnesota saw another dip in public school enrollment for the 2021-2022 school year, although the decline was not nearly as steep as it was the prior academic year.

Overall enrollment was down less than 1% statewide, according to figures released Friday by the Minnesota Department of Education.

Kindergarten enrollment, which dropped off during the pandemic, bounced back somewhat, rising 5% over the last school year but still lower than it was before the pandemic.

The annual enrollment report also shows the state registered fewer first-graders in its public schools than in pre-pandemic years, and private school enrollment continues to grow. That suggests many families who signed up for private schools during the pandemic aren't returning to publicly funded classrooms.

In a news release about the new enrollment numbers, the department noted that public school funding is tied to pupil counts.

"Throughout the pandemic, the needs of our students have continued to expand, and we must ensure our public schools have the funding and resources to support students and families," Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said.

The enrollment trends varied in some of the state's largest districts.

Minneapolis Public Schools registered yet another steep drop at 8%. St. Paul Public Schools posted enrollment losses of about 4%. Overall, that's 13% and 7% below pre-pandemic levels, respectively.

The declines and the related budget woes have become flashpoints as those districts and teachers unions try to reach agreements on labor contracts.

But the Anoka-Hennepin school district, the state's largest, saw an influx of families signing up for kindergarten — enrolling 454 more students at that grade level this year than it did during the last school year. The surge in kindergarten enrollment helped the district to post a 1% overall increase in enrollment, bucking the downward trend statewide.

Last May, Anoka-Hennepin officials mounted a campaign to tell district families they planned on offering a classroom experience that largely resembled what students and their parents came to expect pre-pandemic.

Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent David Law credits consistent messaging that schools would be full open for in-person instruction for the boost in enrollment this year.

"I think it was probably being in-person that was the deciding factor," Law said.

He also cited community surveys that show district families have a largely favorable perception of Anoka-Hennepin schools, particularly the way officials have handled the pandemic.

Even though the district kept its pledge to offer in-person classes, rising case counts in the fall prompted officials to concede that some students would need to wear masks.

"Parents into July heard we were going to be back five days a week and that we weren't going to be wearing masks, so that shift was certainly irritating," Law said.

It turns out masks weren't a deal-breaker for many families.

"We had as many students leave us to go to districts that required masks as districts that didn't require masks," Law said.

He hesitated to pinpoint why the many districts posted enrollment losses for another consecutive year while Anoka-Hennepin recovered so many of the students it lost in 2020-21.

But Law noted that there were about 1,100 building permits filed in 2020 in the district's north surburban communities, a contrast to the increasingly tightening housing market in the Twin Cities.

Families of color have also told Anoka-Hennepin district officials they're drawn to more diverse schools. In other words, there's no one element drawing families away from metro-area public schools or pulling them back.

"I think it's unique for every family," he said. "There are just so many factors."

The overall decline in Minnesota's public school enrollment is most apparent in the younger grades.

The number of first-grade students in schools within the seven-county metro area is about 2% higher than the number of students who were in kindergarten classes the year before, meaning some families may have opted in to the public school system.

But first-grade enrollment at those schools is still about 7% lower than it was at in the 2019-2020 academic year, pre-pandemic.

Schools outside the metro area saw similar enrollments trends for those grades.

Meanwhile, Minnesota's private schools saw a spike in enrollment in the fall of 2021. Nearly 70,000 students enrolled in the state's private academies this year, about 8% more than in the 2020-21 academic year.

Tim Benz, president of Minndependent, a coalition of about 150 private schools throughout the state, said surveys the organization conducted at the beginning of this academic year showed that families who enrolled in a private school at the start of the pandemic largely stayed put.

"It seems like the families that have come found the academic rigor they would like, and they found community in these schools," Benz said.

Word-of-mouth may have also played a factor as parents who enjoyed the private school experience brought along their friends and relatives, Benz added.

When the emergence of the delta variant last summer led to a spike in coronavirus cases and cast doubt on whether schools would be open for business as usual in the fall, Benz said private schools could be more nimble in their approach to masking rules and other COVID-19 protocols.

Although this year's state enrollment report held good news for Minnesota's private schools, Benz declined to say whether it signaled a long-term trend.

"It's way too soon to tell," he said.