1.2 Million Students Abandoned Public Schools Since The Pandemic

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Sarah Wilder Social Issues Reporter
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A recent national survey of public school enrollment numbers since 2020 shows plummeting enrollment, especially in schools that adopted virtual learning methods during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The data from the American Enterprise Institute‘s Return to Learn Tracker found that 1,268,000 students had left public schools since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. After school closures during the Spring 2020 semester, enrollment fell by 2.5% in the Fall semester of that year. In the Fall of 2021, schools that returned to in-person learning saw some recovery in enrollment numbers, while those that adopted virtual learning methods suffered.

In the 2021-2022 school year, school districts that maintained a largely remote learning experience saw enrollment drop by 1.2% in that year, for a net loss since 2020 of 1 in 22 students. Districts that went in person in the 2021-2022 school year saw a recovery of 0.9%, for a net loss of only 1 in 93 students.

Decreases in enrollment varied according to grade level. Most remote districts lost 8.1% of Kindergarten students, 6.2% of elementary students, and 2.6% of middle school students. Only in high schools did remote districts see a slight uptick—0.2%—in enrollment. (RELATED: Dems’ School Closures Were An Absolute Disaster For Poor And Minority Students, Study Shows)

Enrollment numbers also differed along party lines. Most districts that voted for Trump made some recovery in the 2021-2022 school year after their initial falls in enrollment, while enrollment in districts that voted for Biden continued to fall.

Nat Malkus, Deputy Director of Education Policy at the American Enterprise Institute, said the data could be partly explained by the fact that many parents chose to move away from areas in the country where school districts prioritized remote learning during the pandemic.

“After the full pandemic school year where schools spent a lot of time remote, you saw a disproportionate share of families make the decision to vote with their feet,” Malkus told the Daily Caller.

Many parents have chosen to remove their children from schools altogether, instead opting for homeschooling. In the Spring of 2020, for instance, 5.4% of households homeschooled, but that number rose to 11% in the Fall of 2020.  (RELATED: Maryland Dems Propose ‘Advisory Council’ To Collect Data On Homeschoolers)

Malkus said that the question here will be whether parents who chose this option during the pandemic school closures will continue with the method when and if schools reopen.

“You could say, ‘I’m homeschooling during the pandemic,’ but I think that’s gonna be a different sort of homeschooling in many cases than you’re gonna find pre-pandemic where it was homeschooling embarked on outside of an emergency,” Malkus said.

Districts that remained in person did markedly better in recovering enrollment numbers after the first year of the pandemic than did districts which were mostly remote.

“I think it shows that the decision to be remote longer has consequences,” Malkus said of the trend.