More than a third of the national public school enrollment decline since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be attributed to switches to private school or homeschooling, or to a shrinking population of school-aged children, according to new research that delves into the question of what happened to so many of America’s students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s likely that many of the students who are unaccounted for—generally schools’ youngest learners—opted to skip kindergarten altogether, a move that could have long-term consequences for their academic achievement. And while the drop in kindergarten enrollment was particularly pronounced in the first full school year after the start of the pandemic, the enrollment decline in schools’ earliest grades has persisted beyond the pandemic’s early years, even as buildings have returned to in-person classes.
“These findings tell us that the learning disruptions of forgoing learning opportunities or school switching were occurring predominantly among younger students, yet I think they’re kind of off the radar of the academic recovery discourse,” said the report’s author, Thomas Dee, the Barnett Family Professor of Education at Stanford University. “If we look at where the energy is and where schools are spending extra money, it tends to not be focused on the younger kids.”
While the national enrollment in kindergarten increased in the fall of 2021 over the prior fall, it was still “well below” the 2019 total, Dee said. And schools generally didn’t see a surge in first-grade enrollment, either, Dee said, which might have been expected the year after a large number of students skipped kindergarten.
In the first full year following pandemic-related school closures, public schools in the United States lost about 1.2 million students. The largest losses were in kindergarten and early elementary grades, according to analyses of enrollment changes.
Where those students went has largely been a question mark, though some experts speculated much of the attrition was likely students switching to homeschooling and, to a lesser degree, private schooling.
In new research, published July 31 in The Teachers College Record, Dee appears to confirm some of that early thinking, but with a caveat: At least one-third of schools’ enrollment drops aren’t attributable to students switching schooling methods or demographic changes. It’s simply unknown where these students went.
The research used national data on public school enrollment between 2019 and 2021, estimates of school-aged populations in each state, data on K-12 private school enrollment from 33 states and the District of Columbia, and homeschooling data for 21 states and the District of Columbia. Other states either do not track or publicly release the same data.
Based on state-level enrollment data and Census population estimates, Dee found that increases in homeschooling and shrinking school-aged populations account for about 26 percent of public school enrollment losses. Switches to private schooling explain about 14 percent of the decline. That leaves about 40 percent of the change unexplained by those changes.
The data also show that both the homeschool and private school enrollment increases were sustained into the 2021-22 academic year—the second full school year after the pandemic hit—meaning that families didn’t flock back to public schools once the majority reopened for in-person classes.
Another explanation for schools’ enrollment drops is changing demographics across the country.
During the pandemic, the United States’ school-aged population (defined as children 5 to 17 years old) fell by more than 250,000. That decline likely “contributed meaningfully to public-school enrollment losses,” Dee wrote.
“Because such demographic changes are likely to be durable, districts that lost enrollment due to such factors are unlikely to see their enrollment rebound substantially,” the report says.
Once changes in private school enrollment, homeschooling, and demographics are accounted for, there are at least three potential explanations for the rest of public schools’ enrollment decline, the report said: a rise in truancy, more unregistered homeschooling, and an increase in the number of children skipping kindergarten.
Of the 21 states from which Dee was able to get data, nine require kindergarten and 13 do not. Where kindergarten was required, a smaller portion of the public school enrollment loss since the pandemic is not explained by changes in nonpublic school enrollment and demographics than in the states where kindergarten is not required.
“These comparative data indirectly suggest that, in states where it is allowed, skipping kindergarten increased meaningfully during the pandemic,” the report concluded.
Decades of research support the idea that early education is critical in developing young students’ learning and social-emotional skills and crucial to their long-term academic success. In recent years, more states have made pushes to expand access to pre-kindergarten, citing its success in narrowing achievement gaps and increasing test scores throughout students’ time in school.
So, more students missing early education opportunities during the pandemic could add an additional layer to already complex learning recovery efforts, Dee said.
“All of this has salience for understanding our academic recovery challenges, because … if kids are missing developmentally critical instruction, because they’re delaying kindergarten, that’s going to raise learning challenges when they do show up in formal schooling,” Dee said. “Much of the academic recovery discourse is where we have test data, which tends to be among older students. But the kids for whom the enrollment data tell us the learning disruptions were the most significant, they still haven’t even aged into those testing windows.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2023 edition of Education Week as Kindergarteners Haven’t Returned. Here’s How That May Prolong Academic Recovery