Ashley Pearce's daughter was scheduled to start kindergarten in Maryland
's Montgomery County school system last year, but when it became clear that the year would start online, Pearce found a nearby Catholic school that offered in-person instruction and switched.
Pearce is now faced with a major decision: Should her child return to the local public school
? She is hesitant to uproot her daughter after she has made friends
, and Pearce is concerned that if coronavirus
cases increase, the district may go fully virtual again.
“It’ll be fine
if we stay where we are, and that stability for my family is most likely the way we’ll go.”
As many parents across the United States
consider the same concerns, school districts that lost enrollment during the pandemic
are waiting for the fall to see how many families stick with the education
choices they made over the last year. In the hopes of attracting students, many districts have launched new efforts to connect with families with young children
, such as blanketing communities with yard signs.
There are early indications that enrollment may not fully recover, and the stakes are high: if enrollment does not recover, public schools
that lose students may face funding cuts in the future, even though pandemic relief funds are temporarily boosting budgets.
Sustained enrollment declines could also change the demographics of America
's public schools, according to a first-of-its-kind study conducted by Chalkbeat and The Associated Press
. Enrollment in preschool through 12th grade dropped by 2.6% across 41 states last fall, with white students experiencing the greatest drop, with enrollment dropping by more than 4%.
White families’ decisions appeared to be swayed especially by whether their child’s public school offered in-person learning; states with more students learning fully virtually saw larger declines among white students, according to the Chalkbeat/AP analysis.
Meanwhile, the nation's Hispanic student population experienced the greatest shift from pre-pandemic trends, with enrollment falling 1.5% last fall — a significant change, given that Hispanic students had been the country's fastest-growing student group — which could be attributed to some of the disruptions Hispanic families experienced during the pandemic, such as higher rates of job loss and higher rates of eviction
The data emphasizes the difficult task that schools face in reuniting with families who left public schools for a variety of reasons and ended up in a variety of alternative settings.
“Districts may have this kind of ‘different strokes for different folks’ policy,” said Richard Welsh, an associate professor at New York University
who has studied student mobility. “‘We’re open for business
and committed to in-person learning’ could be more targeted to white families.”
Welsh, on the other hand, stated that “when you have districts that are giving tours about their safety protocols, those may be targeted more to their Black
families,” whose communities were hardest hit by the pandemic.
One such effort is underway in San Antonio
, where the mostly Latino
school district saw enrollment drop by slightly more than 5%; officials expect enrollment to rise this fall, but not to pre-pandemic levels.
To reassure families concerned about in-person learning, district officials have held town hall meetings where families can ask experts questions about COVID-19 vaccines
, and the district will continue to offer a fully virtual schooling option.
Superintendent Pedro Martinez said that school officials are working to contact every family who left or did not enroll their child in preschool or kindergarten, whether by phone or home visit, and that the district has tasked bus drivers with calling families between routes to encourage them to register their children.
While Martinez is focused on the early grades, where enrollment has dropped the most, he also has an eye on older students. Almost every student in the district comes from a low-income family, and many got jobs
to help their families weather the pandemic. He is concerned that so many teens
continued learning remotely all spring so they could continue to work, though he understands the financial pressure.
“It’s so easy for a 16- or 17-year-old to prioritize work over school,” he explained.
Certain pandemic schooling options, such as enrolling young children in child care instead of kindergarten, are likely to fade, but some families, like Pearce, may continue to use private schools as a means of avoiding uncertainty.
It is unclear how many students those schools absorbed. In some states that track it, such as Delaware and New Hampshire
, private school enrollment increased by 5% or more this year, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat and the AP. However, in others, such as New York, Louisiana
, and Colorado
, private school enrollment decreased by 3% or more, indicating that families did not switch in large numbers.
Notably, it was not just the wealthy who dropped out of public schools; there were significant enrollment declines among students from both low-income and affluent families in the 35 states that provided data.
Others may continue to home-school their children, a practice that has increased dramatically in the few states that have tracked it. In New York and Virginia
, for example, home schooling increased by more than 50% this year, despite remaining a relatively uncommon option.
Regardless, districts are now ramping up their recruitment efforts in the hopes of building on the small upticks they saw in the previous few months as in-person learning became more widely available.
Last fall, enrollment in Spokane, Washington
, fell by nearly 7%, with Asian, Black, and white students experiencing the steepest drops. District officials have been reaching out to families via text messages
, mailers, and community groups.
They've been emphasizing the district's plan to reduce class sizes this fall, which they see as a selling point for families who want more individual attention for their children and for those who are still concerned about the coronavirus. The district assures families that it will provide both full-time in-person instruction and a virtual option.
“We want to create as much predictability as possible, and try to mitigate a sense of unknown and fear as much as possible,” Superintendent Adam Swinyard said, “and just let our families know that we're ready and eager to be back.”
Researchers who track student demographics are also keeping a close eye on who returns, and it will be clearer by the fall if the enrollment shifts have long-term implications.
Some districts are already anticipating a long-term impact from the pandemic.
Officials in Denver
predict that enrollment will drop by 6% in the coming years, nearly doubling what was predicted before the pandemic. Declining birth rates and rising housing
prices that drive families away are major factors, but officials believe the pandemic exacerbated those losses, particularly in the youngest grades. Kindergarten applications are down significantly for the upcoming school year.
, the district's planning director, said the overall drop could be "pretty significant," but she isn't giving up hope: "I'm hoping that maybe all of a sudden tons of kids show up."
Chalkbeat's Melanie Asmar and Samuel Park contributed reporting.