School & District Management

School Enrollment Crashed in Fall 2020, the Steepest Drop Since 1943

By Libby Stanford — June 08, 2022 4 min read
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Schools experienced the largest single-year drop in enrollment since World War II during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, new data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2022 Condition of Education Report show.

Each year the congressionally-mandated report contains the most recent data on public school enrollment, demographics, achievement, and family characteristics to help educators, lawmakers, and researchers better understand the state of education in the U.S.

This year’s report, released May 31, marked the first time the NCES looked at the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on education. The report examines data from fall 2019 through fall 2020, telling a story of what happened as schools shut down and attempted to reopen.

“We know COVID-19 disrupted our schools and colleges, and this report serves as an important reminder of the work left to be done on the road to recovery,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement.

From fall 2019 to fall 2020, total public school enrollment for pre-K through 12th grade dropped 3 percent from 50.8 million to 49.4 million students, according to the report. The decline erased a decade of growth by bringing public school enrollment back to 2009 levels. It was the largest single-year decline since 1943, when schools were operating in the midst of World War II, according to the report.

The report also shows the pandemic’s impact on student learning. The National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term trend results show 13-year-olds performed worse in reading and mathematics than 13-year-olds in 2012. It was the first time those scores had dropped for that age group between the two administrations of the tests, in 2012 and 2020, according to the report.

Average scores among 9-year-olds who took the NAEP tests in 2020 were not measurably different than the scores among the age group in 2012, the report said.

The Education Department’s “urgency has shifted from getting institutions open to, now, keeping them open; providing the necessary academic, financial and mental health supports for students and families; and strengthening our K-12 and post-secondary education systems,” Cardona said.

The report also includes data on school choice, gun violence, home schooling, and more. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Early-childhood education: In fall 2020, 40 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds were enrolled in the public school system—a 14 percentage point drop from the 54 percent who were enrolled in fall of 2019. The percentage of 5-year-olds enrolled dropped from 91 percent to 84 percent.
  • Home schooling: In the 2020-21 school year, 5.4 percent of children ages 5 to 17 were home-schooled, according to the House Pulse Survey, which NCES used to collect data in August 2021. The number is higher than previous years, with 2.8 percent of students having been home-schooled as of 2019, according to the National Household Education Survey, which is completed every seven years.
  • School choice: From fall 2009 to fall 2019, the percentage of all public charter school students public rose from 3 percent to 7 percent, according to the report. While total public school enrollment rose from fall 2009 to fall 2019, the year with the most recent data available, the number of students in traditional public schools decreased by 500,000 over that decade. Private school enrollment remained steady over the decade with around 9 percent of all school students attending a private school each year from fall 2009 to fall 2019.
  • School violence: There were 146 school shootings in the 2020-21 school year, compared to 114 in 2019-20, the first year of the pandemic, according to data from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s K-12 School Shooting Database, which is cited in the report. Forty-three of the shootings in 2020-21 involved deaths while 27 of the shootings in 2019-20 were fatal, according to the report. The federal database defines a school shooting as anytime a gun “is brandished, is fired, or a bullet hits school property for any reason,” according to the tracker’s website. (Education Week reports more recent data using its own methodology to track incidents on its School Shooting Tracker.)
  • English-language learners: English-learners accounted for 10.4 percent of the total public school population in fall 2019, which is a rise from the 9.2 percent of students who were English Learners in 2010, according to the report.
  • Students with disabilities: The percent of students served by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act increased from 13 percent in 2009-10 to 15 percent at the end of 2020-21.
  • School demographics: White students made up 45.76 percent of all students in fall 2020, a slight decrease from the 46.41 percent of white students in fall 2019. White students were followed by Hispanic students, who accounted for 28 percent of the total enrollment, and Black students, who made up nearly 15 percent of the total enrollment, both slight increases over fall 2019 numbers.
  • Family characteristics: In 2020, 16 percent of children under 18 years old were in families living in poverty, according to 2020 U.S. Census data cited in the report. The rate is a 5 percentage point drop from 2010, when 21 percent of students lived in poverty. In 2021, 8 percent of children lived in households where no parent had completed high school, which is also a decline from the 11 percent of children without parents who completed high school in 2010.

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