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Some desks in classrooms are empty because student enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools has dropped by more than 1 million.
Some desks in classrooms are empty because student enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools has dropped by more than 1 million.
Some desks in classrooms are empty because student enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools has dropped by more than 1 million.
Some desks in classrooms are empty because student enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools has dropped by more than 1 million.
Some desks in classrooms are empty because student enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools has dropped by more than 1 million.

Come back

June 9, 2023
With the threat of Covid-19 subsided, schools and universities are hoping for student enrollment to bounce back.

Some things seem unimaginable until you experience them yourself.

In 2020, people had been hearing about something called the coronavirus and health experts were warning that a lot of people were at risk of getting sick. But in March 2020, the spread of the virus reached a tipping point, the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, and in the days that followed, most of the nation’s schools and universities abruptly shut down in-person instruction.

Education institutions were not alone in being unprepared when their normal operations ground to a halt, but the effects of shutting down schools affected every community from coast to coast. Amid uncertainty about whether schools were a safe and healthful environment for students and staff, millions of students were sent home. Schools and universities hurriedly put together plans for offering classes remotely so that students could have access to some semblance of instruction.

Students, teachers and administrators had little choice but to try to adapt to the changes that Covid-19 forced upon them. Some students were able to continue their learning in online or hybrid settings, and some who had trouble adjusting fell behind academically or struggled mentally.  Among disagreements about the effectiveness or necessity of strategies like masking and social distancing, all of those in education, as well as the rest of society, were looking forward to the day when the Covid-19 pandemic was in the rearview mirror and they could get back to “normal.”

Now, after more than three years and 1.1 deaths in the United States, the federal government has officially declared that the Covid-19 Public Health Emergency has ended, and schools and universities have returned to mostly normal operations—instructors providing in-person instruction to classrooms of unmasked students.

But something has been missing in the return to normal: many of the students. According to enrollment data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Elementary and Secondary Information System, the number of K-12 students enrolled in U.S. public schools dropped by about 1.3 million from fall 2019 to fall 2020—from 50,720,122 to 49,366,089. The fall 2021 total was about the same as the year before: 49,352,997.

Higher education experienced a comparable decline. Statistics from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show that undergraduate enrollment dropped from 16,284,724 in fall 2019 to 15,686,317 in fall 2020. That decline has continued, enrollment in fall 2022 was 15,050,669, the center says.

Projecting enrollment

To develop accurate projections, districts keep track of data about population trends and planned housing developments to predict how many students are likely to enroll. But Covid-19 rendered those calculations obsolete.

In 2019, before the pandemic, the NCES projected that public elementary and secondary enrollment in fall 2020 would be just short of 51 million and would increase to more than 51.1 million in fall 2021.

For an individual district, an unanticipated dip in student numbers can disrupt budget planning and cause serious problems. Having fewer students almost always means getting less state funding, and if the decrease is sizable and prolonged, a school district may have to increase class sizes, lay off employees or even close facilities.

Other options 

A report by the consultant EY-Parthenon, “Where have all the students gone?” suggests that many families have not returned to public schools because of a dissatisfaction that is attributed to more than their pandemic experience.

“Although health and safety played a prominent role during the height of the pandemic, today, families appear to be reacting more to their perception that school districts do not best serve the needs of their children,” the report says.

Several schooling alternatives may have become more appealing to those families during the pandemic. Charter schools accounted for 7.5% of public school students in 2020-21, compared with 6.8% in 2019-20, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

A report from the Urban Institute estimates that between fall 2019 and fall 2021, private school enrollment increased by 4.3%, and homeschool enrollment grew by 30%. Many areas also have reported significant growth in virtual education for students who prefer the online instruction they experienced in the pandemic.

The end of ESSER

In the short term, school funding has been supported by the billions of dollars in Covid-19 aid from the federal government. But that aid, known as ESSER funding, expires in September 2024, and some schools may be confronted with a budget shortfall.

“If declining enrollment translates to a reduction in funding, districts will likely need to decide between cutting budget lines entirely, reducing the breadth or depth of offerings, or pursuing free or cheaper solutions,” the EY-Parthenon report says. “Districts may need to look for efficiencies in spending to trim costs, while still supporting strong teacher-led instruction.”

Evolving needs  

To get students who have opted out of traditional public schools to return, educators and administrators may have to embrace new strategies.

“States and districts may need to better understand the evolved needs of their students and parents following the pandemic,” the EY-Parthenon report says. “Investment in new ways of delivering education...can enhance educational engagement and outcomes. District schools may need to truly evaluate how to ‘compete’ for students, which may require significant innovation and use of marketing and communication tools to engage parents.”

New approaches also may help schools better serve students who are included in their enrollment statistics but are disengaged because of chronic absenteeism. Attendance Works, a non-profit group that works to combat chronic absenteeism, says that at least 10 million students—more than one in every five studentswas chronically absent, missing at least 10% of the school year, in 2020-21.

FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University, and Attendance Works have developed “Attendance Playbook: Smart Strategies for Reducing Chronic Student Absenteeism Post-Pandemic,” to offer steps schools can take to address issues that lead to absenteeism.

“The pandemic’s long months of remote learning, hybrid schedules and repeated quarantines frayed bonds among students and between students and educators and fractured routines of attending school,” the playbook says. “Left unaddressed, these high levels of absenteeism threaten to undermine the unprecedented investment of federal Covid-relief funds in public schools.”

The playbook divides its recommended interventions into three tiers:

Tier 1: School-wide Prevention. These strategies are aimed specifically at preventing absenteeism among all students. Examples of strategies include setting expectations about when students show up to class and recognizing improvement in attendance.

Tier 2: Targeted Support. These interventions are designed to remove barriers to attendance for students at heightened risk of chronic absenteeism, such as those who are close to or already missing 10% of the school year. Schools need to give these students and their families more personal attention to help them understand the importance of coming to school and create a plan to address the barriers they are facing.

Tier 3: Intensive Support. These interventions provide intensive support to students most at risk of chronic absenteeism and typically require case management customized to an individual student’s challenges and can involve health, housing and social services agencies. Students missing 20% or more of the school year benefit from this level of support.

“Attendance strategies work best when other, underlying conditions are present in schools, including physical and emotional health and safety, a sense of belonging among students and educators, academic challenge and engagement, and students and educators who are able to navigate school life socially and emotionally,” the playbook says.

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