"When I talk to my colleagues ... across the country, there's a lot of concern right now," says Chicago schools chief Pedro Martinez. "Pre-pandemic, we were already seeing enrollment decline. So it wasn't that we had stability. What happened during COVID, we just saw an increase in the number that didn't come."
In 2019-2020, public school enrollment dropped by 3 percent nationwide, erasing a decade of slow gains. The decline was attributed largely to COVID-related disruptions, and was concentrated in the early grades. Many families simply opted out of remote learning in the non-compulsory grades of pre-K and kindergarten. School leaders hoped this year would bring recovery.
To the contrary.
Our sample is neither comprehensive nor necessarily representative, but it is large enough to suggest some important patterns. This reporting builds on NPR's reporting from 2020, which documented enrollment drops at a similar sample of districts across the country. That finding was substantiated nine months later by the National Center for Education Statistics, including the fact that enrollment losses in public schools were greatest in pre-K and kindergarten.
Where have the students gone?
Educators and researchers we spoke with gave several possible explanations for the continuing falloff: an increase in home-schooling, a shift to charter schools and private schools, another year of delays in entering pre-K or kindergarten, and families moving to enroll in districts that weren't captured in our sample.
But educators are most worried about vulnerable students who may have fallen through the cracks in the widespread economic and social disruption caused by the pandemic.
"We think we found most of them, but there are still probably a thousand kids out there, we just don't know what happened to them," says Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa. "Other urban superintendents are telling me they have significantly higher numbers of students that they're really worried about."
Below are some of the enrollment trends we found this year and what they say about the pandemic's lingering impact — as well as what school leaders are doing to win back families.
Some of the youngest students still have not enrolled
Between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2020, federal data found a remarkable, 13 percent drop in pre-K and kindergarten enrollment. Districts hoped to see many of these children arrive this fall.
In Champlain Valley, Vermont's largest school district, enrollment hasn't returned to pre-pandemic levels, but the schools are seeing a kindergarten bump this fall. "Some of these students were held out of school during the pandemic so they could start kindergarten this year," says the district's superintendent, Rene Sanchez.
"Half the kids we lost were pre-K kids," says Hinojosa in Dallas. Over the summer, he says, his team mounted "a very intentional drive in the community to get those kids back."
While some did return, overall enrollment in the Dallas Independent School District remains down more than 10,000 students from fall 2019.
The challenge now, for educators, is understanding where those young children and their older siblings went. Did they simply stay home — or did their families enroll them elsewhere?
A shift to private schools
Private and parochial schools generally enroll about 10 percent of all students in the United States, or about 5.7 million students. While nationwide enrollment in private schools dropped last year along with public schools, this year it has rebounded.
The National Association of Independent Schools comprises private, non-parochial schools. They report a net enrollment growth of 1.7% over the two pandemic years.
There's a particularly big rebound in private preschool enrollment in the NAIS sample. That number dropped dramatically between 2019-20 and 2020-21, but then grew 21% this fall for a net growth of 6% over two years.
While accurate data are not yet available for parochial schools, media reports suggest their enrollment has rebounded this fall as well.
"We saw a couple thousand students that transferred over to private schools in the city," says Martinez, who took over as chief executive officer this summer in Chicago. "And that was because the private schools were assuring the families that they would be open in-person, no matter what."
Similarly, "the New Hampshire diocese gave some significant discounts for folks to come [last school year], and it made it really affordable for some families to have that option," says John Goldhardt, the superintendent in Manchester, that state's largest district.
Sarah McVay pulled her children from the Seattle Public Schools this fall. "We stuck it out the pandemic year — bad choice — and my 3rd grader essentially sat bored, learning very little all year," she says. "The number of tech issues was infuriating ... it was constant."
McVay says a staffing change announced at the end of the last school year for seniority reasons, which would have left her son with a long-term substitute, was the last straw.
Tim Robinson, lead media relations specialist for the Seattle schools, acknowledged the difficulties some parents faced last year amid the disruption. "We recognize – and always did recognize – that remote learning presented many challenges," he said. "And we are very pleased to be able to be back in the classroom this year."
The Seattle Public Schools report that the district has lost 6.4% of its students since the start of the pandemic. Statewide, districts in Washington are down 3.5% in the same time period.
"We moved to Concordia Lutheran," McVay says. "We aren't Lutheran, or even religious, and it was an act of desperation. But it has been truly amazing, and we are going to stay through 8th now."
The charter school factor
In the fall of 2020, charter schools, which are publicly funded but run separately from districts, saw a 7 percent jump in enrollment, adding about 240,000 students nationwide.
"It translated to the single highest year, in terms of raw numbers, that we've ever seen charter schools grow," says Debbie Veney at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. This figure included a big jump at virtual charter schools — a controversial, largely for-profit sector.
In fall 2021 that story has shifted: K12 Inc and Connections Academy, the nation's largest virtual charter providers, told NPR their enrollment is relatively flat from last year.
Meanwhile some brick and mortar charters continue to gain students, as NPR's examination of statewide data in Massachusetts and Georgia showed.
In New York City, the KIPP charter school network opened three new schools this fall, fueling an enrollment jump of 11 percent. In fact, KIPP schools in the city grew during both pandemic years, to a total of 7,150 students.
"We benefited just from having deep relationships with our families for retention," says Jane Martinez Dowling, KIPP NYC's external chief officer. "And we sort of doubled down on making sure that we were in touch with our families, that we did have different modes of going out there and doing recruitment even during COVID." This included multilingual advertising in local publications.
In the Rochester, N.Y., public schools, enrollment has fallen from 25,000 before the pandemic to around 22,000 this year, says Lesli Myers-Small, the superintendent. Almost 7,000 students now attend local charters, which, she says, tells her: "We have to make our schools attractive again."
Homeschooling is up, too
Public schools face competition not just from charters and private schools, but from families who have chosen to keep their kids home another year.
In Rochester, the district's homeschooling numbers are still above average, "because we are limiting the remote options this year," says Myers-Small. "And we recognize and honor the fact that it might be concerning or scary" for some parents to send their children back to school at this point, especially with fresh fears around the Omicron variant.
A rise in remote work, and the experience of managing students' virtual learning, may have made more families take a serious look at teaching their children at home. Yet homeschooling oversight varies widely from state to state.
Errick Greene, the superintendent of the Jackson, Miss., public schools, worries about "bootleg homeschooling" — families that may be keeping children at home, but not necessarily giving them a thorough education. Mississippi has no testing requirements, no teacher qualifications and no mandated subjects for homeschooled students.
For some parents, continuing concerns about safety are driving them to keep their children home.
Tanesha Grant, the founder of Parents Supporting Parents New York City, represents a group of about 250 families who, she says, were "traumatized" by the pandemic. They are keeping their kids home from public school, but not officially removing them from the district. They call themselves "school strikers," holding out for a permanent remote option because they don't see school as safe.
"Black and brown families we know are disproportionately affected and have had someone die or have COVID-19 in their families," Grant says. "We live in multigenerational homes. We are still in mourning and still traumatized."
Lingering concerns about COVID rules and enforcement
COVID safety protocols have been polarizing and politicized in this country, and that is keeping a vocal minority of parents away from public schools.
"We have people in our community that are anti-mask. I'm not saying they're wrong. I'm just saying, they have their right to self-identify that way," says Jon Dean, the schools superintendent in Grosse Pointe, Mich. "We exist in a county that has a mask mandate. So we know we have families that are not attending right now because masks are mandatory in our school district."
Dean says parents' frustrations over masking requirements showed up in surveys of families who have opted out of public school.
Goldhardt, in Manchester, also saw students leave for private schools with looser COVID rules. "They didn't require masking ... and we did."
High school students are dropping out to work
Students opting out for charters, private schools or homeschooling can hurt public schools because their funding is based on headcount. For the moment, federal relief funds may cover for revenue lost to enrollment drops, but that money is designed to phase out in several years.
Declining district enrollment is also a community-wide matter, because strong public schools are a selling point for businesses and homebuyers.
But the biggest concern for the country at large is students who drop out of school entirely.
In Baltimore, John Davis, the city's chief of schools, says his district used federal relief dollars to actively find and reconnect with these students over the summer.
"Literally, just do outreach nonstop ... We made thousands of contacts. Those folks did a wonderful job, and I think that's why we, overall, didn't see a huge decline [this school year]," Davis says.
Superintendents say they are often losing students to paid jobs.
"A lot of my principals were saying, 'Dr. Small, we're losing kids. They're telling us, I have to work,' " says Myers-Small in Rochester. "We did talk to some businesses and said, 'Listen, you know, Cory should not be working [at this time]. School is in session. He is a student.' "
Myers-Small says Rochester has increased opportunities for working students to make up lost credits online.
"We ... knew that we were fighting against survival and poverty," she explains. "We wanted to make sure that there were learning opportunities in the afternoon and evening, and we track that we had some scholars who were logging on at seven or eight o'clock at night and doing their coursework."
In Jackson, Miss., Superintendent Greene says that, during remote learning, teachers told him of students "who were on Zoom calls during the day and at work." He says some of his principals and staff have reached out to local business-owners to plead for students to have shifts that start after a particular required course.
Greene says he's tried hard not to force these teens to choose between school and work, and the district is designing a new, fully virtual option for working students or anyone who thrives learning from home.
"School does not have to happen in the hours in which it happens right now. You know, late afternoon, early evening, weekends," Greene says.
In Dallas, educators are trying to help working students by offering night school.
"It has become popular because now these kids have started making some money, and their families depend on them," says Superintendent Hinojosa. "And they don't want to give up their jobs. And so we had to find a different way to meet their needs."
'We need you back'
Superintendents across the country tell NPR the pandemic pushed many families to think more deeply about each child's education — what they need and how best to get it.
"I think families have a desire to gain more control of their lives," says Ed Graff, the superintendent of the Minneapolis public schools, where enrollment has also continued to decline. "The public education landscape has changed significantly, and families are making calculated decisions to pursue other learning options that are best for their children and for themselves."
That's one reason Hinojosa, in Dallas, put up billboards. "We got very aggressive with families and said, 'We need you back,' " he says.
His district paid for billboards along the city's roadways, display ads on buses, even in convenience stores — an approach pioneered by charter schools.
"We have [an image of] a little kid with a stethoscope and a doctor's jacket — to say, 'Look, these kids are going to become doctors, but, if they don't come back to school, they're going to fall further behind.' "
Roughly 40,000 children attend Dallas-area charter schools, and Hinojosa says he's had to get creative, even before the pandemic, reaching families and winning them over. Now, he says, they're pulling out all the stops, including the creation of new schools with more popular curricular offerings.