COVID-19 Policy Fallout

Public Schools Lost 1.1 Million Students During 2020–2021 School Year

In the 2020–2021 school year, the first full school year of the pandemic, public school enrollments declined by 2%, or roughly 1.1 million students, largely the result of schools moving to remote instruction, according to a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).

The unheard-of decline was most pronounced in elementary grades and particularly in kindergarten, according to researchers. The researchers found a direct correlation between enrollment declines at the district level and the type of instruction offered (remote-only, hybrid and in-person). Based on data analyzed by the researchers, "… estimates suggest that remote-only instruction reduced kindergarten enrollment by 3 to 4 percent and elementary-school enrollment by 1 percent while having smaller and statistically imprecise effects at the middle and high-school levels."

In states where kindergarten is mandatory, the decrease was 3.9%. In states where kindergarten is optional, the decline was more pronounced, at 4.6%.

The effects could be substantial, according to the researchers.

"These include the likely fiscal strain on public schools of declining enrollment as well as the diverse developmental implications for students related to the underlying behaviors driving enrollment declines such as kindergarten skipping and redshirting, school switching, truancy, and dropping out. Arguably, the major policy lever relevant to these enrollment decisions was (and continues to be) the instructional mode states and districts choose for their schools (i.e., in-person, remote-only, or a hybrid). In the fall of 2020, policymakers confronted an exceptionally difficult choice about how to reopen schools; one that required them to balance the public-health risks to their students and communities with the educational and economic harm of remote instruction."

Since most of the disenrollments were for younger students, the effects, the researchers argue, will be long-lasting.

The paper, "The Revealed Preferences for School Reopening: Evidence from Public-School Disenrollment," is freely available on the NBER website and includes detailed methodology.

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at .