School & District Management

More Than 1 Million Students Didn’t Enroll During the Pandemic. Will They Come Back?

By Eesha Pendharkar — June 17, 2021 | Updated: July 22, 2021 6 min read
Students participate in class outside at the Woodland Pond School, a private school  located near Bangor, Maine. Maine experienced one of the nation's largest drops in student enrollment this school year, according to an EdWeek analysis.
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Updated: On June 30, 2021, this page was updated with new grade-level enrollment data from North Carolina, and new English-language learner, special education, and free and reduced price lunch enrollment data from Arizona, North Dakota, and Oregon. On July 9, 2021, the page was updated with new data from Illinois. On July 22, 2021, the page was updated with new data from Delaware, Illinois (special education data), and New Jersey (special education data).

America’s public school system lost more than 1.4 million students this year, according to an Education Week analysis of state data. 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 nearly 3 percent dip in the 2020-21 school year was likely fueled by the pandemic and the unusual ways school districts delivered instruction this year, which involved frequent switching between in-person, hybrid, and glitchy remote learning.

With the spread of the coronavirus receding, administrators are now scrambling to attract students back to the classroom who might have missed months of face time with teachers. They’re knocking on doors, blasting text messages to students asking about their whereabouts, and teaching parents how to log their children into class for remote instruction.

And they’re drastically expanding crucial intervention services such as summer school and counseling services to prepare those students for reentry.

“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,” said Sharlonda Buckman, the assistant superintendent of Detroit Public Schools. “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.”

Every state lost students this year

Education Week reached out to 51 state departments of education in order to collect a more comprehensive picture of enrollment losses across the country.

Some of the data is preliminary and has not been finalized.

Enrollment for several years had been trending upward in the South and West and declining in the Northeast due to immigration, demographic shifts, and lower birth rates. But during the pandemic every state saw a dip in enrollment, according to Education Week’s analysis.

Least affected were Idaho, South Dakota, and Utah, which reported declines of less than 0.5 percent this year.

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.

In Maine, the number of students who were home-schooled alone or in learning pods, increased by 32 percent during the pandemic. Kristina Cammen was one of those parents who chose a small outdoor school with three other students for her 4-year-old daughter, Willa Stoll.

“That was, I think, largely driven by safety concerns, and feeling like her being in a setting with fewer kids and an outdoor model was safer,” Cammen said. She is still debating whether to send her daughter to a public school district this fall.

Districts lost more students in lower grades

Across the nation, the loss in enrollment could eventually result in less money for districts, forcing administrators to lay off teachers and other staff. However, those concerns are not immediate, since states held districts harmless for enrollment trends this year.

Most of the nation’s enrollment drop took place in the early grades.

At least five states lost more than a third of their pre-K students, the largest of which was Washington state, where pre-K enrollment dropped by 42 percent this year.

Kindergarten enrollment also took a big hit, with 21 states losing 10 percent or more of their kindergartners during the pandemic, compared to the 2019-20 school year. In most states, parents are not required to send students to kindergarten, which contributed to the enrollment drop, said Erin Simon, the assistant superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District.

“We know that showing up to kindergarten is a key year for laying the foundation for future success,” said Hedy Chang, founder of Attendance Works, a national initiative that advocates for better public school attendance. “It’s where kids have a chance to not only gain their basic academic concepts, but also, socialization and social-emotional development.”

Julien Lafortune, a researcher for the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank, is also concerned about what the youngest students missed over the past year of not being in school and what delayed enrollment next year will mean, especially for low-income kindergarteners.

“I think some of those students may have gone to private schools and probably a lot are homeschooled, but the real question is, are they going to return?” he said. “And if and when they do, what types of services will they need?”

Low-income children will have catching up to do

Catching students up academically also won’t come cheap, according to administrators. 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.

As schools plan for the summer, they are adding in mental health support for students to start this recovery process. In April, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced a plan to hire 500 new social workers to screen students for pandemic-related trauma.
Most alarming to experts and administrators is the number of low-income students who failed to show up to school this year.

At least 39 states demonstrated a decrease in enrollment of students that qualified for free and reduced-price meals this year.

Students in low-income families are less likely to have resources to make up for the lost instructional time in school during the pandemic, Chang said. Their houses are less likely to have books, and their parents are more likely to be working multiple jobs, leaving less time to help them learn.

“When low-income kids miss a lot of school, it has a disproportionately greater impact on them than kids who are more affluent,” Chang said. “It’s going to exacerbate existing inequities that are created by poverty.”

Two districts attempt to lure children back to school

Long Beach, Calif. has been losing about 2 percent of its pre-K-12 enrollment each year for several years now, as the high cost of living has driven families away from the city. But last year, the challenges families faced were exacerbated by the pandemic, leading to a loss of about 2,300 students, or 3 percent of total enrollment.

Administrators stayed in touch with families via email and texts to try and help students overcome barriers and get online for classes when in-person schooling was shut down, according to Simon.

Erin Simon, assistant superintendent of school support services for Long Beach Unified School District.

When teachers went on home visits during the pandemic to see why students were not attending class, often they found families struggling with food insecurity or housing problems.

Simon and her team are hiring social workers and psychologists to work with foster kids and homeless students next year.

“Our kids are coming back with additional trauma, additional mental health issues,” she said. “I believe in hiring staffing around that and working with our community agencies to get the resources and necessary services that we know that our students are going to need.”

Detroit’s schools had about 2,000 fewer students enrolled this year, which is a 3.7 percent drop. In addition, 65 percent of all students missed 18 or more days of school and were considered chronically absent in 2020-21, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at a press conference in late May.

The district set up learning centers at each of its 110 campuses to give students a place to go with internet access, adult supervision and meals, Buckman said. Now, administrators there and across the country have to try and bring back the kids they lost this year.

Buckman has found students who lost parents to the pandemic, students who were essentially supporting themselves, and students who were taking care of sick family members.

Sharlonda Buckman, assistant superintendent of family and community engagement for Detroit Public Schools.

“With the trauma of what our kids have experienced and how families have been devastated, I do think that if our children don’t get some type of support, it’s going to be difficult to get them back into school,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2021 edition of Education Week as Missing: More Than 1.4 Million Students Never Enrolled During the Pandemic

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