Enrollment in K-12 public schools dropped significantly in 2020 as a result of pandemic disruptions. Bellwether Education Partners released a report in October 2020 estimating 1-3M children were missing from schools since the pandemic. Analysis of data from 33 states obtained by Chalkbeat and The Associated Press indicated that public K-12 enrollment dropped across those states by more than 500,000 students last fall, or 2%, compared to the same time in 2019. This was a significant shift considering that enrollment overall in those states has typically gone up by around half a percent in recent years.
The magnitude of the enrollment dip was concerning, mostly because we had no comparable societal disruption we could use as a benchmark. News headlines across the fall suggested that COVID-19 disruptions had thrown schools into a ‘death spiral’ and that the enrollment declines were a ‘massive event’, from which our public school systems may never recover given the direct relationship between pupil counts and government funding.
The declines make sense—driven largely by concerns over health and safety and quality and inconsistency of schooling during the pandemic. Plus, many students are not attending virtual classes, so may have been removed from official rolls for missing several days in a row. But these reasons are pandemic-related—so the question is, will these declines continue in a post-vaccine world?
District leaders are confident
Despite this news, EAB is confident that there will not be lasting, pandemic-related enrollment declines in the post-vaccine world.
District leaders’ assurance bolsters EAB’s confidence that students will return next year—most surveyed leaders rated that confidence a four out of five. Part of that confidence stems from students already returning as they realized schools could keep them safe. One district shared a 40% increase in students coming in-person this spring compared to the fall—and their story was much like others.
Parents have also shared that their approach to schooling this year is temporary. The What We’re Learning study found that nearly 82 percent of surveyed K-12 parents who have disenrolled their children intend to re-enroll them once it is safe to do so. Additionally, federal dollars provided to schools through stimulus bills have mostly assuaged short-term funding concerns that the enrollment declines this year could have caused.
While there are students that districts have been unable to locate, we do know where most students have gone. This information reveals how students have been educated and who is missing from schools this year to further substantiate confidence they’ll return. Read on for the four signs that there will not be lasting pandemic-related enrollment declines in the post-vaccine world.
1) Kindergarten declines first hint this is a pandemic anomaly
The Chalkbeat/AP analysis shows that a drop in kindergarten enrollment accounts for 30% of the total reduction across the 33 states—making it one of the biggest drivers of the nationwide decline. Also, the Brookings Institute reports less formal tracking of prekindergarten enrollment, but they cite several local accounts that suggest declines.
Why are enrollment declines so concentrated in kindergarten?
- Kindergarten is not required in over half of states (pre-K is not required in most), and many parents have chosen to skip it for now
- For their youngest students, many parents were understandably concerned over inconsistency and too much screen time this year
- Some parents had to opt for in-person childcare rather than send their children to virtual school without childcare
Waiting to send children to kindergarten even after they qualify in age is not uncommon, sometimes referred to as ‘redshirting’. In a normal school year, approximately 4 percent of children who are eligible to start kindergarten are held back by their families. Most families who redshirt their students do send them to public schools eventually, and we expect the same for families who chose to do so this year—keeping these students home for several years will be unsustainable for most.
2) Families haven’t flocked to private schools
Towards the beginning of the school year, there was talk that wealthy students would flock to competitors, like private schools, that were more likely to offer in-person learning. These predictions weren’t totally off.
In some places, private school enrollments increased. But these increases mostly came from private school students transferring to other private schools for an in-person option. For example, New York City saw a decline in private school enrollment, but private schools outside of the city, like in Connecticut, saw an increase—mostly of existing NYC private school students seeking in-person options in the suburbs. These increases were the case for just a few select markets.
Nationwide, both private and Catholic schools actually saw declines in enrollment. The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) reports that member schools saw a 4% decrease in enrollment between 2019 and 2020. Catholic schools, the most common private school option, saw a 6.5% drop in enrollment nationwide.
One superintendent decided to dig into data to test the claim of students fleeing public schools for preferable in-person options—what he now refers to as an ‘urban myth’. He found that only 25 students (or less than a fifth of a percentage of his district’s students) actually left the district for another school.
3) Homeschooling and virtual charter schools grew in popularity
More often, students that disenrolled from their public schools this year simply stayed home. For some that meant formally enrolling in virtual charter schools—enrollment in virtual charter schools thrived. K12 Inc., one of the biggest online charters, has reported a 57% enrollment increase.
For other students that meant homeschooling, sometimes via learning pods, other times not. EdWeek reports that 58 percent of districts in a mid-October survey listed home schooling as being a major contributor to enrollment declines caused by COVID-19—more than any other single reason, such as losing students to charter schools, private schools, or ‘pandemic pods’. Nationwide, homeschooling increased by 6 percent.
The fact that most students have stayed home instead of leaving public school districts for attractive in-person competitors is reassuring for their return—because staying home long-term won’t be viable for most. Even the spike in enrollment in virtual charter schools this year is likely not going to be a possible option after the pandemic for most families.
4) Staying home is unsustainable for most families
During normal times, most families in the US are unable or unwilling to keep their children home for several reasons:
Childcare Is necessary for individuals and the economy
Parents need to go to work and public schools serve as a de facto provider of both childcare and academics. Private childcare is expensive, whether in direct costs or lost earnings at work. A lack of affordable childcare options also gives reason to believe that the spike in enrollment at online charter schools will likely recede as more parents return to the workplace.
Two-thirds of working parents reported that they have changed their childcare arrangement due to COVID-19, and the majority have yet to find a permanent solution—some reports project $3B in lost wages for families that worked less or not at all to stay home with their children over the past year. Money is tight for many families and trading a job to instead provide care for children long term is not an option for most.
Legal obligation to send students to school
Families also have a legal obligation to enroll and ensure their school-aged children attend a licensed educational institution. 50 states and DC require compulsory education from at least ages 8-16. Enforcement may have been lax over the past year, but truancy will be a concern for many families and students in our post-vaccine world. And once kindergarteners reach a certain age (that specific age varies depending on the state)—redshirting will no longer be an option. These students will have to enroll formally somewhere.
Home learning Is ineffective for most students
Home learning (not to be confused with intentional homeschooling) has not been effective for most students, and families are aware their children need to learn to succeed. The average student will need to recover about five months of learning by the end of this year.
A top priority for many families is to get their children back in the classroom where they are far more likely to make greater academic progress. This will be a key factor that helps to fuel a broad enrollment rebound.
Most students will come back, but they will need significant help
To be clear, even though confidence is high enrollment will rebound, school districts will still be faced with myriad of challenges to accommodate students who have been absent or missing from school.
District leaders expect significant and widespread needs for academic support among students returning to the classroom. The adolescent mental health crisis has only been made worse by the pandemic—with many students bringing additional trauma from longer periods in unsafe home environments. Thousands of our youngest students will be lacking the behavioral and socialization skills required to be in school all day. Plus, with equity gaps at an all-time high and the demand for racial justice at the top of many districts’ priority lists, many students will need even more targeted support.
Fortunately, EAB has spent the past year preparing for the challenges the pandemic has both created and exacerbated for schools. Here are highlights of related EAB resource—please contact your dedicated advisor for more information on how we can help.
Want more predictions for the post-vaccine world?
Watch the on-demand webinar, K-12’s Path Forward: The Seven "Wonders" of a Post-Vaccine World.