While students across the country welcome the coming of summer, many public schools face the harsh reality that student enrollment has sharply declined and doesn’t appear to be returning to pre-pandemic numbers. Some schools are even reaching a financial crisis point.
According to a recent national survey tracking such numbers since 2020, public schools in the U.S. have lost more than 1.2 million students. There are around 50 million students in the public school system across the country, so that’s about a 2% drop.
This is everywhere, but if anything, the trend is concentrated in major urban areas. For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s noncharter schools saw around 43,000 students leave over the past two academic years, and enrollment in Chicago schools has dropped by about 25,000 in that same time.
Over the past two years, New York City has seen around 50,000 students leave the public school system.
However, cities aren’t the only places grappling with this. One district in Olathe, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, had more than 1,000 of its students leave in 2020, out of around 33,000. Perhaps even more interesting is that only around half of them returned for this school year.
Rural areas are also seeing this trend. For example, in Woodbury County, Iowa, student enrollment in the Westwood Community School District declined by more than 5% during the last two years. It dropped even though the superintendent, Jay Lutt, pointed out that the community saw an influx of new residents coming from larger cities during the pandemic.
In Michigan, enrollment is still more than 50,000 lower than numbers from before the pandemic.
This is also being seen in other areas like Orange County, California, which has historically been a destination for desirable public schools. Still, enrollment went down for the second year in a row. Across California, more than 250,000 students have gone off of the state’s public school rolls since 2019.
This was already somewhat of a trend before the pandemic, partly because of low birth rates and less immigration, but these declines in enrollment far exceeded what can be explained by those factors. School closures and parents’ frustration with pandemic-related policies likely exacerbated it.
There’s also the stark reality that many kids probably just left school altogether because of how much stress the school lockdowns brought on families.
There was very little public school attrition in states that did not lock down schools. In Florida, for example, public school enrollment has stayed strong, despite considerable gains in homeschooling in the state, which suggests that new students are filling the spaces of those who left.
The American Enterprise Institute’s analysis also showed that remote learning affected enrollment. It found that “In Fall 2021, enrollments rebounded in districts that spent 2020-21 mostly in-person. Those that stayed remote longer, saw even more students leave.”
Interestingly, enrollment also increased in rural resort locations since many people started working from remote areas.
Only time will tell how many kids fell out of the education system entirely over the pandemic closure period.