More than a million students disappeared from public school rolls during the 2020-2021 school year according to a new report from Education Week that analyzed available state-collected data about schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“America’s public school system lost almost 1.3 million students this year, according to an Education Week analysis of state data,” the outlet reported Wednesday. “The loss was spread out across the nation, touching almost every demographic group and concentrated in lower grades. It will likely have academic, financial, and staffing repercussions for years to come.”
The drop represents a 3% drop in enrollment across the board — and it could be larger. Education Week was only able to get information from 47 states. Delaware, Illinois, and North Carolina all have yet to report their enrollment data. Some of the data that Education Week received was, in the outlet’s words, “preliminary.”
Every state calculated, though, saw a dip in public school enrollment. ‘The most severe enrollment losses occurred in Maine, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and Vermont, all of which lost more than 4.3 percent of its students,” Education Week noted. “In Maine, the number of students who were home-schooled alone or in learning pods, increased by 32 percent during the pandemic.”
It appears from the data that younger students — preschoolers, Kindergartners, and young elementary school students — were the most likely to drop off public school rolls, and lower-income students, both white and black, were disproportionately likely to have missed school.
The report does not specify whether the students dropped out of school or whether some simply failed to enroll given the difficulty of having only virtual instruction during the pandemic — a situation that requires, in many cases, an internet connection and constant parental supervision.
“When you already have pre-existing issues like poverty and the digital divide, and then you shut down the one place that is positioned to help close those gaps, you probably see that most districts have experienced an enrollment drop,” Sharlonda Buckman, the assistant superintendent of Detroit Public Schools, told Education Week of the issue. “Most of our children work best in a school building with their teachers with all of the assets that position them to do well in their schoolwork.”
Officials are now likely to question whether the extended virtual instruction created a major problem for the American education system. In many of the nation’s largest school districts, teachers’ unions resisted a return to classrooms, claiming that in-person instruction risked their health and safety. Other districts, like Chicago Public Schools, saw their teachers’ union try to use the pandemic as leverage for concessions.
The pandemic could end up costing public schools more than just students — it could cost districts millions in funding as they race to catch students who missed either part of or all of the 2020-2021 school district up to their peers.
“Catching students up academically also won’t come cheap, according to administrators,” Education Week said. “Students will need smaller classes to catch up and a plethora of mental health services after being holed up inside their homes for months at a time with little healthy social interaction.”
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