BISMARCK — Fox Hills Elementary School, a sparkling, $35 million building in Watford City, will open its doors to students for the first time Sept. 8, the first day of a new school year.

The new structure is designed to hold 600 elementary school students, a number larger than the entire K-12 population of the school district just 10 years ago. Since the start of the Bakken oil boom, school enrollment in Watford City has nearly quadrupled. And during a decade of nonstop growth, with Oil Patch communities bursting at the seams, many schools were forced to cram students into overcrowded mobile classrooms.

But as Watford City prepares to finally unveil a new space for its youngest students, no one knows how many kids will show up. For months, Oil Patch communities have relied on rumors and their own eyes to gauge the population of their neighborhoods. The region is still absorbing the impact of a pandemic that has gutted oil jobs, and just how many people have stuck around — and how many have already blown out of Dodge in search of new work —nobody seems to know.

At a time of anxiety and confusion, the first day of school in western North Dakota will also offer the first real barometer for how many people these towns lost as their local industry collapsed.

“The first day of school is always, every year, kind of the real test, because when you see the whites of their eyes you know exactly who’s there,” Steve Holen, superintendent of the Watford City School District, said of population measurements in the oil patch. “Up to that point you’re going off some numbers that aren’t completely accurate.”

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

Oil Patch cities like Watford City, Williston and smaller towns like Alexander have grown used to the severe population fluctuations that come with their boom and bust economies. In recent history, departures from western North Dakota school systems have been more than recouped by the hundreds of new additions each year.

But this time may be different. For the first time in recent memory, the class sizes in the Oil Patch could shrink. In McKenzie County, which encompasses Watford City, an unemployment rate of just 1.3% a year ago has since jumped to more than 11%. And Watford’s apartment occupancy levels have dipped from full to 70% capacity in recent months, according to a county study, suggesting that a substantial portion of the local population has already left the region.

This vacancy was perhaps first felt by local businesses, many of which have watched their main customer base evaporate. “We’re hearing that, you know, a lot of families have left,” said Donna Sims, the owner of Wild Flour bakery in Alexander. Sims guesses that her customers were three-quarters oil workers before the pandemic, but she said she has stopped seeing her regulars in recent months.

“I think they left. I think they’re gone. They were stopping in here every day," she said, estimating that 75% of her business has disappeared since the start of the pandemic.

But Sims and her peers can only guess at the extent of these changes for now. “It’s difficult sometimes to get employment numbers from the industry," explained Sen. Dale Patten, who represents Watford City in the North Dakota Legislature. "But you can get a really good head count of the kids on the first stay of school."

To start the process, many school districts sent out links for digital class registration this week, marking an important window to ballpark the new class sizes. But a substantial portion of families likely won’t respond to these surveys, and districts can’t even reach families that moved into the area only in the past few months.

Making the process even trickier, North Dakota schools are coming off a weird spring of online classes. It was harder for teachers to keep tabs on their students in remote classrooms, and in at least a few hundred cases, Kirsten Baesler, the state's superintendent for the Department of Public Instruction, said schools “simply didn’t hear from students again.” The department suspects that many of those students and their families left the state, but Baesler noted that they “won’t know if those conclusions were accurate until this fall.”

Many schools are left not knowing how many desks, buses or even teachers they will need until after the students return. “It’s always a challenge for our school district,” Holen said. “We’ve tried our best to try to monitor those who have left. It’s really a moving target.”

But the revelation of these class sizes on day one will offer community leaders their best available gauge for a volatile population. And these student head counts will have big implications beyond education. The population estimates drawn from the first day school could have ripple effects for local policy, affecting a community's housing, zoning and infrastructure decisions as well. In Baesler's words, "As go the schools, so goes the community."

And while depleted classrooms would bear difficult news for Oil Patch communities, fewer students may also mean an unexpected moment to regain balance for school districts that have struggled to keep pace with population growth in the past 10 years.

“The majority of our schools were overcrowded as it was,” said Baesler. “So it might be a nice bit of a reprieve while they catch their breath.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.