According to a new analysis, public school enrollment dropped more sharply in school districts that remained remote for longer than those that reopened for in-person learning sooner, as well as in districts that adopted heavy masking policies and those in counties that supported former President Donald Trump over former Vice President Joe Biden.
According to researchers at the American Enterprise Institute, 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 is rebounding in districts that reopened for in-person learning faster and continuing to decline in those that did not, according to enrollment data published to more than 12,000 school districts.
“I expected to observe a link between in-person learning and online learning,” says Nat Malkus, AEI’s deputy director of education policy studies and founding director of the organization’s “Return 2 Learn Tracker.”
“It demonstrates the power of these divergent decisions,” he says. “Changes in enrollment are a big, life-changing decision for a family. Each of these numbers indicates a family whose plans have changed. This isn’t a minor, one-time decision like whether or not to mortgage our home. This is along the lines of “should we move our child’s institutional home?”
“I was struck by it.”
Districts that remained remote the longest saw a 4.4 percent enrollment reduction over two years, losing around 1 out of every 22 kids, while districts that reopened sooner recovered, losing around 1 out of every 93 students. Enrollment declines were larger than 3 percent in 19 states. Enrollment dropped by more than 5% in New York, Oregon, and Mississippi, with New York schools seeing the greatest loss of 5.9%.
Schools in Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis staked his political career on keeping schools open for in-person learning after an initial closure in 2020, as much of the country, passed legislation prohibiting district officials from pivoting to virtual learning due to COVID-19 or imposing mask requirements, saw a 2.2 percent enrollment decrease during the 2020-21 school year, just shy of the national enrollment decline of 2.5 percent.
The Sunshine State, on the other hand, is one of 24 states where enrollment is expected to return in the 2021-22 school year, with a current enrollment reduction of just 0.9 percent compared to the previous year. Despite not returning to where enrollment was during the 2019-20 academic year, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Oklahoma, and South Carolina achieved the most significant gains in recouping students.
Only four states – Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Utah – had increases in enrollment this school year over the previous year, while Alabama’s enrollment stayed steady.
Researchers also looked at enrollment data from districts with high mask usage against districts with low mask usage and discovered a similar pattern: Both types of districts saw enrollment losses in the 2020-21 school year. High mask usage districts lost roughly 2.9 percent of their pupils, while low mask usage districts lost about 2.4 percent. However, during the 2021-22 school year, enrolment in districts with low mask usage decreased by 1.9 percent, while enrollment in districts with high mask usage decreased by 3.4 percent.
When looking at enrollment data for districts in areas that backed former President Donald Trump over Vice President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, the same pattern emerges.
Malkus says, “You see the same trends.” “It’s not as obvious, but you find very comparable slopes in the first year and divergent slopes in the second.” This informs me that all of these things are interconnected. “They’re all COVID cultural responses,” says the author.
The new enrollment data follows the publication this week of an academic paper by Brown University, MIT, and the University of Nebraska, which found that students enrolled in schools that were virtual for a shorter period of time experienced significantly greater learning loss on standardized tests than those enrolled in schools that were virtual for a longer period of time.
The researchers discovered that offering full-time, five-day-a-week in-person learning – rather than purely virtual learning – lowered pass rate losses by 13 percentage points in arithmetic and 8 percentage points in English language arts between 2019 and 2021. Offering a mixed model rather than a purely virtual approach lowered math losses by 7 percentage points and English language arts losses by 5 to 6 percentage points.
Republicans are attempting to weave these data figures into a national narrative about pandemic schooling to galvanize voters ahead of the 2022 midterm election, especially after this year’s gubernatorial contest in Virginia demonstrated the efficacy of concentrating on parental rights in public schools.
“I don’t think Republicans will be afraid to attack that point hard,” Malkus says.
In actuality, pandemic schooling has a far more complicated impact: To be fair, in-person learning was more common in more politically conservative locations, as well as those that tended to be higher affluent and recruited more white students — but there are undoubtedly outliers to that picture. Long-distance districts tended to be some of the country’s largest and poorest, enrolled large numbers of Black and Hispanic students – whose families bore the pandemic’s economic and health burdens more than other racial and ethnic groups – and experienced long periods of high rates of community transmission.
Furthermore, polling conducted over the last year consistently reveals that the majority of families backed their school district’s decision to reopen for in-person instruction or to remain remote.
Malkus is less confident that masking debates will be front and center during the midterm elections, but concrete data like enrollment drops and academic achievement gaps in districts that stayed remorse the longest will undoubtedly be front and center – especially if public health experts’ predictions of a late-summer surge come true.
“If this wave rises again and masks reappear in some areas, or if we have another August surge like we experienced the prior two years, schools will close,” Malkus adds. “Oh my gosh, if that happens this September.” This thing is going to be supercharged.”