Orange County, Fla., has 8,000 missing students. The Miami-Dade County public schools have 16,000 fewer than last year. Los Angeles Unified — the nation's second-largest school system — is down nearly 11,000. Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina has 5,000 missing. Utah, Virginia and Washington are reporting declines statewide.
Comprehensive national data aren't available yet, but reporting by NPR and our member stations, along with media reports from around the country, shows enrollment declines in dozens of school districts across 20 states. Large and small, rich and poor, urban and rural — in most of these districts the decline is a departure from recent trends. Over the past 15 years, data from the U.S. Education Department show that small and steady annual increases in public school enrollment have been the rule.
Six months after schools around the country shut their doors amid coronavirus lockdowns, these fall enrollment declines come as schools have been scrambling to improve remote learning offerings and to adopt safety procedures to allow buildings to open for in-person classes, sometimes just a few days a week. In many parts of the country the start of the year has been marked by multiple changes in plans, widespread confusion among teachers and families, deep concerns about safety, and worries about unequal access to technology.
"We are not alone in this," Chris Reykdal, Washington state's superintendent of public instruction, said in a statement this week announcing a 2.82% decrease in enrollment statewide, driven by a 14% drop in kindergarten. "As our nation continues to fight the spread of COVID-19, states across the country are seeing changes in K–12 enrollment as families make decisions about the safest and most effective learning environments for their children."
Reykdal said operational cuts might be looming, and schools would lobby the state for stopgap funds. "Counts are taken every month, and if these trends continue, many of our districts will need to make adjustments in the short term even as they plan for booming kindergarten and first grade classes next year."
Kindergarten and pre-K stand out
In many places, the enrollment drops are especially noticeable in kindergarten and pre-K. For our reporting, we reached out to more than 100 districts and heard back from more than 60. In our sample, the average kindergarten enrollment drop was 16%.
Many education experts are skeptical about the virtues of remote learning for very young children, and lots of parents seem to feel the same way.
"It was either going to be virtual or hybrid, or if they were in person it was going to be weirdly socially distant and masked," says Megan Olshavsky, whose son was scheduled to start kindergarten this fall in Austin, Texas. "And he wouldn't be able to interact, really, with other kids."
Instead, Jonah, who is almost 6, is staying in his small private Montessori school for kindergarten, where he'll attend in person, full time.
"We had signed him up to start in Austin in the beginning of the year and then, you know, in the late spring and the summer, we kind of realized that school wasn't going to look normal," Olshavsky said. The school district started the year with four weeks of virtual learning before phasing in small groups of students.
Jonah's Montessori school cut class sizes to fewer than 10 students to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread. And since it's licensed as a day care, the children aren't required to wear masks. Meanwhile, the Austin Independent School District is down 5,000 students this fall, a 6% drop.
Olshavsky says she and her husband will have to tighten their belts to afford another year of private school tuition.
And school districts stand to lose money as well.
Public schools are generally funded by states on a per-pupil basis. The first week of October marks the first of two "count days" in many states — a day in the fall, right at the start of the new fiscal year, where school districts must submit an official enrollment count to determine their funding for the subsequent year.
And that system tends to favor schools in better-off communities, which get more of their funding from local property taxes, explains Bruce Baker, an education professor at Rutgers University. It's the less well-funded districts that are more dependent on state aid.
"If you've got a district where 70, 80% of the money is coming in state aid based on some enrollment count number, which would tend to be a poorer district serving a higher share of low-income and minority students," he explains, "those districts stand to lose a lot if the state decides to follow through with using this year's enrollment counts as a basis for funding in the future."
The potential loss is a hardship for school districts that already are facing the costs of schooling during a pandemic — from masks and hand sanitizer to hiring additional teachers to run both in-person and virtual programs. On top of that, the coronavirus-induced recession has already driven education budget cuts across the country.
Stephanie Elizalde, the superintendent of Austin ISD, told NPR that the state of Texas has agreed to "hold the district harmless" for enrollment declines for the fall semester only. She is hoping that students start to show up in greater numbers now that the school doors are open a few days a week. Otherwise, she says, "We could have huge cuts."
"I don't think there's ever been a time I can recall where I visited with colleagues and all of us are like, how are we going to manage this? ... Knowing that you have these cuts during the most economically challenged times and a pandemic is — I mean, that's just unheard of," she says.
Baker agrees that a downturn in enrollment this fall does not automatically equal a budget cut next year — states have time to pass measures in the spring to help schools make up the gap in funds.
But in the meantime, budget pressures may push schools to make reopening decisions that they wouldn't otherwise. In Florida, for example, enrollment in Miami-Dade, Broward County and Orange County — all of which are in the top 10 largest districts nationwide — has dropped by several thousand students each.
Back in July, on the same day President Trump implored schools on Twitter to open in the fall, the Florida Department of Education offered school districts the following deal: Reopen and get funded based on the much higher enrollment levels from before the pandemic. Or don't, and get funded based on the actual number of students. Plus, districts will get about $2,500 less for every student who remains online-only.
Judith Marte, the chief financial officer of Broward County schools, said at a recent school board meeting that the expected enrollment drops of 8,500 students could lead to a significant reduction in a district budget that is already "disgustingly low." And that shortfall, she added, could lead to potentially cutting thousands of jobs.
On the other hand, echoing the difficult decisions educators around the country have faced, Marte said she worries about the safety of returning students to buildings full time: "This is also incredibly stressful for staff, it's incredibly stressful for this board and the superintendent ... To do what's right for our community, it's a very, very difficult place to sit."
Concerns about the youngest students
If students are not showing up at their public schools, where are they going? Possibly to private school, though dozens of private schools have shuttered since the start of the pandemic. Child care centers, which may accept pre-K and kindergarten students, are threatened as well. But there are some reports of private schools gaining students even as public schools are losing them, in places where private schools are in person and public schools are virtual or hybrid.
"The inequity of the situation is just really staggering," says Olshavsky, the mother in Austin. "We were basically able to pay to keep our kid in a safe learning environment."
Austin Superintendent Elizalde agrees that her main concern is an "exacerbation ... of opportunity gaps in students from different economic backgrounds."
Not all families have the means to send their children to private school, or devote a parent to home schooling full time. Some families, says Elizalde, will be leaving children home with older siblings or to sit in front of the TV.
Jessica Diaz is a nurse in Tampa, Fla., married to a firefighter, with three daughters. Since she and her husband work in high-risk environments, they don't want to send her children to school in person. But she's struggling with the district's online learning offerings, too. Her children's nanny is Spanish-speaking and has trouble with tasks like navigating Zoom class meetings.
"I don't think [virtual school] is a sustainable option for our family at this point," she told NPR. "For all of the burden of constant emailing, changes in schedules, assignments and submissions, etc., we feel the content of the education that is being delivered is far below our girls' capabilities and not worth the trouble at this point."
She plans to pull them out and home-school after the winter break, when she hopes she'll have time to put together a curriculum; but she'll have to do the actual teaching herself in the evening hours after work.
Experts in early childhood education agree with Elizalde that keeping kids out of kindergarten and pre-K, in particular, is likely to exacerbate existing inequalities. Kindergarten is not compulsory in most states. That means children can sit out the year without necessarily doing formal home schooling or private school.
They may enter next year as first-graders, or simply delay the start of kindergarten — a practice sometimes called redshirting and, in normal times, more popular among affluent families and boys.
Diane Schanzenbach, an economist at Northwestern University who studies redshirting, says starting kindergarten late has no long-lasting educational advantages and may even have some drawbacks, for example in lifetime earnings. And Chloe Gibbs, an economist at the University of Notre Dame, says decades of research have underlined the importance of early childhood enrichment for all children, and especially for children from lower-income and less educated families. "We have consistent evidence that these kinds of interventions can have big effects on children's both short-term skill development, but really importantly, their long-term life chances."
In other words, pre-K and kindergarten are the rare educational interventions that both narrow gaps and lift all boats.
When families keep children home, the opposite may be true, says Gibbs. "Parents may be choosing not to send their kids to pre-K or to hold back their age-eligible kids from kindergarten," she explains. "And that could be fine for kids in terms of their skill development, if they are in homes where they're ... reading a lot."
But, she adds, what experts really worry about are kids "for whom this early childhood landscape has changed so much. And what are they getting kind of in the absence of having those important early experiences?"
Ann Doss Helms of WFAE, Claire McInerny of KUT, Rob Manning and Elizabeth Miller of OPB, and Julia McEvoy of KQED contributed to this story.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
October is the month when schools in many states hold their official count days. That's when they tally the number of students in every school, and that number determines the amount of money that districts will receive. NPR has found significant enrollment drops in districts across 20 different states this fall. And the consequences could be serious, both for students and school budgets.
NPR's Anya Kamenetz worked on this story, and she's joining us now. Anya, good morning. What did you find?
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel. So I should say final national numbers will not be out till the spring. So what NPR did was collect fall enrollment numbers from several dozen districts across the country. And in 84% of those, were - there were enrollment drops, which were out of line for previous years, generally concentrated in elementary school with a 16% average drop in kindergarten enrollment.
MARTIN: Hmm. So why is this happening, Anya? Why is enrollment dropping?
KAMENETZ: You know, so many families - and educators, by the way - feel like online learning just isn't working so well for young children. And conversely, there are also parents who have told me they're just hesitant about having young kids' first experience of school be masked up and socially distanced if it's in person. I should also point out that in more than half of states, kindergarten in particular is not compulsory, so you can kind of sit out the year.
MARTIN: So what's the effect of that?
KAMENETZ: You know, it's likely to multiply existing inequities, right? So kids with a houseful of books, a stay-at-home parent to homeschool them, they're probably going to be fine. They might even be ahead of the game. And there are many places where private schools and child cares are open full time, in session even where public schools are not. On the other hand, there are children who may be home with an elderly relative, a sibling, watching YouTube. And so this is going to magnify kind of existing gaps.
MARTIN: What about the effect on actual school districts that are dealing with this lower enrollment?
KAMENETZ: So here's the irony I discovered, Rachel, is that the affluent public schools depend on local property taxes. And that is not really dependent, in turn, on enrollment. It's the districts that serve the more disadvantaged children that are more dependent on state funds, and that means a big threat to the budget. And one of the places we're really seeing this is Florida, home to some of the biggest districts in the country. They've dropped thousands of students. And Jessica Bakeman of member station WLRN in Miami reported on how this is all playing out.
JESSICA BAKEMAN, BYLINE: When Miami-Dade County Public Schools shifted abruptly to online learning in the spring, Chase Simmering's two daughters really struggled with all that screen time.
CHASE SIMMERING: They were zombies by the end of seven hours in front of the computer.
ISLA: Oh, yeah. That was really hard. It made my eyes hurt.
SIMMERING: (Laughter) Yeah.
BAKEMAN: Isla is 7 and in second grade. This school year, Simmering is homeschooling Ayla and her older sister, Paloma. They're using a curriculum with almost no work on the computer. It's mostly reading, writing and hands-on projects.
SIMMERING: That's what we miss the most about a classroom.
BAKEMAN: The girls are among more than 16,000 students who have left Miami-Dade's traditional public schools from last school year to now. That's about 6% of the district's total enrollment last year. And just north in Broward County, the loss is more than 9,000 students. The stakes are high.
Back in July, on the same day President Trump demanded in a tweet that schools open in the fall, the Florida Department of Education offered school districts the following deal - reopen and get funded based on the much higher enrollment levels from before the pandemic, or don't and get funded based on the actual number of students. South Florida districts didn't have to open right away because of the surge in COVID-19 cases that hit the region over the summer. But by late September, the state's patience had run out. Opening too late could have cost Miami-Dade and Broward 70 or $80 million each, which left school board members in a very tough spot.
PERLA TABARES HANTMAN: I cannot even think that I would be able to support something that could cut funding for our schools, which we so desperately need.
BAKEMAN: Perla Tabares Hantman is chair of the Miami-Dade School Board.
HANTMAN: There would be no way that I could sleep well at night.
BAKEMAN: Initially, the Miami-Dade and Broward school boards decided it would be safe to open for students who want in-person learning in mid-October. But under pressure from the state, both agreed to open last week instead. Teachers unions have called the state education commissioner a bully and argued board members were putting a price on teachers' and students' lives.
Karla Hernandez-Mats is president of the United Teachers of Dade.
KARLA HERNANDEZ-MATS: The fact that our board would allow our children to be at the risk over political agendas is alarming.
BAKEMAN: School board members in Broward County called the state's threat to cut funding if schools didn't open in early October ungodly and heartless. Broward school board member Patricia Good.
PATRICIA GOOD: This is extortion. There's no two ways about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RICHARD CORCORAN: Parental choice works.
BAKEMAN: Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has argued school closures hurt students with disabilities and those who were already at a disadvantage before the pandemic. This was during a roundtable discussion in Tallahassee in late August. It was in person, indoors, and he wasn't wearing a mask.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CORCORAN: And we know that we can provide that education, whether it's face-to-face or whether it's distance learning. And we can do it in a safe manner.
BAKEMAN: The state's promise to fund schools based on pre-COVID enrollment applies to this first head count but doesn't extend through the next one in February.
For NPR News, I'm Jessica Bakeman.
MARTIN: Again, that was Jessica Bakeman reporting from Miami. Anya Kamenetz from our education team is still with us.
So Anya, we just heard about that tension between enrollment and funding. How is that likely to play out across the country moving forward?
KAMENETZ: I mean, probably in a number of different ways - I mean, we're certainly going to continue to see enrollment potentially fluctuate. Some virtual districts are going to open up in person. Some that are in person might have to close if there's another wave of the virus, so families might change their minds. And, you know, the key question here is, what are states and the federal government going to do, right? Falling head count doesn't necessarily have to decimate these budgets. States have the choice to pass emergency funding in the spring and hold - hold districts harmless is what it's called. And/or the federal government, you know, could pass more education aid for schools, which they've done only a little bit of. So, you know, the concern, though, is that the - if it goes the other way, there could be a cascading effect where parents opt out, schools lose funding and schools, in turn, become less attractive to those parents.
MARTIN: NPR's Anya Kamenetz from our education desk.
Anya, thank you.
KAMENETZ: Thanks, Rachel.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "ATLANTIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.