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Enrollment fell and fell again in schools that operated virtually

A counterdemonstrator holds a sign as members of the Chicago Teachers Union protest plans to return to school buildings in January 2022. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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Public schools suffered significant enrollment declines as the pandemic set in, but some districts bounced back and others didn’t. New data suggests the difference can be explained in part by how much in-person school was offered.

Districts that operated in person last school year were far more likely to rebound in enrollment this year than those that continued to operate virtually, according to data released Wednesday by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a right-leaning think tank.

That might be because families in those remote districts were unhappy with their options, and kept them at home or enrolled them elsewhere. It’s also possible that families who were nervous about attending any in-person school were more likely to be enrolled to start with in these slow-to-return districts.

Enrollment levels matter to districts chiefly because state and some federal funding is tied to the number of students, but numbers can also reflect the overall health of a district. Growing districts are able to offer new programs and opportunities while contracting systems may be forced to cut staff and eliminate services.

Drops are also concerning because some of the most vulnerable students may have disengaged from education altogether, said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “Where are they? They’re not going to private school. They’re not going to any other school. They are at home or not in school at all.”

Domenech predicted enrollment will rebound this fall given that school has been almost completely in person this academic year. “We’re going to see things begin to normalize,” he said.

In March 2020, as the coronavirus began its rapid spread, schools went remote across the country. That summer and fall, there was huge uncertainty over how school would be conducted, and public school enrollment fell by 2.5 percent, losing nearly 1.2 million students, according to AEI, which gathered enrollment data from 46 states.

The big question was whether enrollment would continue to fall during 2021-2022, the current school year. Overall, AEI found, enrollment was essentially flat, declining by 0.2 percent nationwide. But that obscures significant variation. Some districts bounced back from the previous year’s losses, and others didn’t.

AEI researchers sorted school districts into three buckets of equal sizes based on data previously collected showing how much remote vs. in-person school was offered last academic year. They assigned each district points based on their offerings, and then ranked them, with each group composed of about 2,650 school districts. That data was then married with enrollment numbers.

“How schools operated affected family decisions,” said Nat Malkus, who runs AEI’s the Return2Learn tracker and is deputy director of the think tank’s Education Policy Studies program.

Districts that were most likely to be remote last year lost an average of 3.2 percent of their students in 2020-2021, then continued losses this school year for a two-year enrollment drop of 4.4 percent.

Those that offered the most in-person classes last year lost fewer students to start with — falling by 2 percent last year. Then in fall 2021 they bounced back, gaining students. Their two-year net decline was a modest 1.1 percent.

Schools with in-person policies that were in the middle were also in the middle in terms of enrollment. They lost 2.7 percent of students the first year, then rebounded a bit for a two-year loss of 2.3 percent.

Schools in urban areas and those with more students of color were, in general, slower to return to in-person schools than others. That’s partly because Black and Hispanic communities, hard-hit by the virus, were often more hesitant to go back to in-person classes. It’s also partly because big cities are more likely to have strong teachers unions, many of which resisted efforts to return, arguing it was not safe. Some large districts also faced greater logistical challenges implementing coronavirus mitigation measures.

Enrollment drops were steep in many of the country’s largest school districts. In New York City, the largest system, K-12 enrollment fell by 9.5 percent over two years. In Los Angeles, the second-largest district, the two-year decline was 8.1 percent, and in Philadelphia, it was 8.9 percent. Chicago, where teachers union and city officials battled over whether to return to buildings, the two-year decline was 6.5 percent.

By contrast, some large school districts in Florida, where the state mandated in-person school, enrollment was flat over two years. Duval County Public Schools lost just 0.2 percent of students; Orange County lost 2.7 percent. Miami-Dade County Public Schools clocked enrollment losses at 5 percent — higher than other Florida districts but lower than big systems elsewhere.

The new data does not show where the departing students went. Some families have reported opting for private schools. Other parents chose to home-school. Some moved to other public school districts. And parents of some young children delayed their start of kindergarten.

The data did show the declines were steepest for the youngest students, with no losses among any of the groups among high-schoolers.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said there is little question that in-person schooling is better for students, even though some of her local unions resisted returning to schools amid disputes over safety.

In any case, though, she argued that declines are not necessarily a rejection of the district’s caution. Some of the enrollment drops, she said, were driven by students who wanted a remote option this year in places that did not offer one. She predicted districts will see enrollment rebound in the fall.

“There was a lot of home schooling this year,” she said.