Public school enrollment dropped more sharply in school districts that remained remote longer compared to those that reopened for in-person learning sooner, a new analysis finds, as well as in districts that adopted heavy masking policies and those in counties that supported President Joe Biden over former President Donald Trump.
While enrollment in the country’s K-12 public schools has declined nationally – dropping roughly 3% during the 2020-21 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics – it’s rebounding in districts that reopened for in-person learning faster and continuing to decline in those that did not, according to researchers at the American Enterprise Institute, which collected and analyzed enrollment data published to more than 12,000 school district websites.
“I thought we’d see a relationship with in-person learning, but I didn’t think it would be this strong,” says Nat Malkus, deputy director of education policy studies at AEI and founding director of the organization’s “Return 2 Learn Tracker.”
“It shows just how influential these disparate decisions have been,” he says. “Enrollment changes – that’s a huge, fundamental family decision. Each one of these numbers represents a family changing plans. This isn’t a small, one-off decision, like should we refinance our house. This is along the lines of should we change the institutional home of our child.”
“I found it striking.”
Districts that stayed remote the longest experienced a two-year enrollment decline of roughly 4.4%, losing around 1 out of every 22 students, while districts that reopened sooner rebounded, losing around 1 out of every 93 students.
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Nineteen states experienced enrollment declines greater than 3%. Enrollment decreased in New York, Oregon and Mississippi by more than 5%, with New York schools experiencing the biggest drop, 5.9%.
Notably, schools in Florida, where after an initial closure in 2020, like much of the country, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis staked his political career on keeping schools open for in-person learning and passed legislation banning district officials from pivoting to virtual learning due to COVID-19 or imposing mask requirements, posted a 2.2% enrollment decrease during the 2020-21 school year – just shy of the national enrollment decline of 2.5%.
However, the Sunshine State is one of 24 states where enrollment is rebounding during the 2021-22 school year, clawing back enough students to where its current enrollment decline stands at just 0.9% compared to the 2019-20 school year. Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Oklahoma and South Carolina made the most significant improvements in recouping students despite not getting back to where enrollment was during the 2019-20 school year.
Just four states – Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota and Utah – posted enrollment gains this current school year compared to the 2019-20 school year, and Alabama’s enrollment remained unchanged.
Researchers also analyzed enrollment data based on school districts with high mask usage versus districts with low mask usage and found a similar pattern: During the 2020-21 school year, both types of districts experienced enrollment declines. Districts with high mask usage shed about 2.9% of students, and districts with low mask usage shed about 2.4% of students. But during the 2021-22 school year, enrollment in districts with low mask usage rebounded to a 1.9% enrollment decline, while enrollment at districts with high mask usage continued to decline to 3.4%.
The pattern also holds when assessing enrollment data for districts in counties that supported former President Donald Trump over President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.
“You see the same patterns,” Malkus says. “It’s not quite as clear, but you see pretty similar slopes in the first year, divergent slopes in the second year. What this tells me is that all of these things get tied together. They’re all products of what I call COVID cultural response.”
The new enrollment data comes on the heels of the publication this week of an academic paper by researchers at Brown University, MIT and the University of Nebraska, which found that students enrolled in schools that stayed remote longer experienced significantly greater learning loss on standardized tests than those enrolled in schools that were virtual for less amount of time.
Offering in-person learning, full time, five days a week – rather than fully virtual learning – reduced pass rate losses by 13 percentage points in math and 8 percentage points in English language arts between 2019 and 2021, the researchers found. And offering a hybrid model rather than a fully virtual approach reduced losses by 7 percentage points in math and 5 to 6 percentage points in English language arts.
With the 2022 midterm election looming, Republicans are hoping to weave these types of data points into a national narrative about pandemic schooling to energize voters – especially after last year’s gubernatorial race in Virginia showed the power of focusing on parental rights in public schools.
“I don’t think Republicans are going to shy away from” hitting that point hard, says Malkus.
In reality, the impact of pandemic schooling is much more nuanced: To be sure, in-person learning was more common in more politically-conservative areas, as well as those that tended to be higher income and those that enrolled mostly white students – though outliers to that profile certainly exist. The districts that were remote the longest tended to be some of the biggest and lowest-income in the country, enrolled large numbers of Black and Hispanic students – whose families shouldered the economic and health burdens of the pandemic more than other racial and ethnic groups – and faced long periods of high rates of community transmission.
Moreover, polling done over the course of the last year shows time and time again that most families supported the decisions their school district leaders made regarding reopening for in-person learning or remaining remote.
Malkus is less certain that debates over masking will headline debates during the midterm elections, but concrete data like enrollment drops and academic achievement gaps in districts that stayed remorse the longest are sure to be front and center – especially if predictions of a late summer surge by public health experts come to fruition.
“If this surge rises again and masks come back in some places, or if we see again like we did in the last two years, an August surge and schools close,” says Malkus. “If that happens this September, oh my goodness. It’s just going to supercharge this thing.”