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
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.