Public school enrollment in the US is unlikely to return to normal
VSOVID-19 SPARK the largest drop in enrollment in public schools since World War II. In the early 1940s, many high school students left for the battlefield or for employment. But this time around, it is unclear where some of the missing students have gone and many of them will not return.
The pandemic forced schools around the world to close overnight in early 2020. In America, more than 50 million students were sent home in March. At the time, few imagined that the closures would last so long. As educators tried to get students back into class in the fall, enrollment fell 3% for the 2020-21 school year. Teachers and administrators have called families and even visited students’ homes in an attempt to get them back to school or at least connect online.
Much of the decline occurred among the youngest students: kindergarten (for five-year-olds) enrollment fell 9%, and preschool (for four-year-olds) fell by 22%. The transition to online learning was the most difficult for the younger ones. In the early years, classes focus on life skills, such as learning to use the toilet and get along with peers, tasks that are difficult to learn with Zoom. Many families have decided to keep their children at home.
Preliminary enrollment figures for the current school year (2021-22) suggest these overall declines will persist until 2022. Few districts have released their figures. Hawaii, one of the few to do so, reported a loss. Before the pandemic (2019-2020), the Hawaii School District enrolled 179,331 students. It reported 4,627 fewer students in the pandemic school year (2020-21). And in fall 2021, it reported 3,104 fewer students than the year before, a 4% drop from pre-pandemic enrollments.
Some children just gave up. Some have enrolled in private schools, but probably not as many as media accounts suggest. Home schooling has become more popular. In Michigan, areas where distance education is reserved only saw a larger increase in private school enrollment, while home schooling increased more in areas where face-to-face instruction was provided. Different concerns about the virus have prompted families to make different choices.
Learning loss will continue to be a concern in 2022, especially among younger children
Many students have left for non-traditional public schools. The number of participants in virtual (online only), charter (independently run) and professional (focused on specific professions) schools all increased in Massachusetts over the past year. In Martha’s Vineyard and other vacation spots, enrollment in conventional public schools has also increased, likely because affluent families have chosen to weather the pandemic in their vacation homes.
Some students may return to their old schools once the pandemic is over and education returns to normal. But some families will not want to move their children from the new schools in which they have fortunately settled. Expect enrollment in private and non-traditional public schools to remain stable. But some children are now “missing”. Of those who left the Hawaii school system in the 2020-21 school year, for example, some left the state or started homeschooling, and a small proportion went to private schools. . But 2,665 students are missing, says Mark Murphy, an education professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Learning loss will continue to be a concern in 2022, especially among younger people. Preliminary enrollment numbers suggest many of the prospective kindergarteners skipped it altogether and started grade one in 2021 (kindergarten is not compulsory in most states). This will likely have a long-term impact: High-quality early learning is associated with increased high school performance, college attendance, and adult wages. These children could find themselves lagging behind their peers for years to come.
Funding will also be a concern. In America, it’s set on a per-student basis, so every missing child means less money for school. Some states, like Florida, allow students to transfer state allocated funds to any school, public or private. Expect such ‘voucher’ schemes to be discussed more broadly in 2022.
Lack of funding could lead to a freeze on teacher recruitments and a reduction in other resources, such as teaching materials, extracurricular activities and social programs. Pandemic relief funds are stopping the bleeding for now, but it won’t last forever. Just as budget cuts reduced test scores and graduation rates in America after the 2007-09 global financial crisis, the impact of covid-19 on education will reach well beyond the end of the pandemic. .
Tamara Gilkes Borr: US Political Correspondent, The Economist, Washington, DC■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition of The World Ahead 2022 under the title “Bottom of the class”