With plunging enrollment, a ‘seismic hit’ to public schools

The pandemic has supercharged the decline in the nation’s public school system in ways that experts say will not easily be reversed.

A girl at a playground in Dana Point, Calif., on May 1, 2022. The Capistrano Unified School District, in the suburbs of Orange County, Calif., has already lost more than 2,800 students since the pandemic started. Alisha Jucevic/The New York Times

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — In New York City, the nation’s largest school district has lost some 50,000 students over the past two years. In Michigan, enrollment remains more than 50,000 below pre-pandemic levels from big cities to the rural Upper Peninsula.

In the suburbs of Orange County, California, where families have moved for generations to be part of the public school system, enrollment slid for the second consecutive year; statewide, more than 250,000 public school students have dropped from California’s rolls since 2019.

And since school funding is tied to enrollment, cities that have lost many students — including Denver; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Oakland, California — are now considering combining classrooms, laying off teachers or shutting down entire schools.


Altogether, America’s public schools have lost at least 1.2 million students since 2020, according to a recently published national survey. State enrollment figures show no sign of a rebound to the previous national levels anytime soon.

A broad decline was already underway in the nation’s public school system, as rates of birth and immigration have fallen, particularly in cities. But the coronavirus crisis supercharged that drop in ways that experts say will not easily be reversed.

No overriding explanation has emerged yet for the widespread drop-off. But experts point to two potential causes: Some parents became so fed up with remote instruction or mask mandates that they started home-schooling their children or sending them to private or parochial schools that largely remained open during the pandemic. And other families were thrown into such turmoil by pandemic-related job losses, homelessness and school closures that their children simply dropped out.

Now educators and school officials are confronting a potentially harsh future of lasting setbacks in learning, hardened inequities in education and smaller budgets accompanying smaller student populations.

“This has been a seismic hit to public education,” said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. “Student outcomes are low. Habits have been broken. School finances are really shaken. We shouldn’t think that this is going to be like a rubber band that bounces back to where it was before.”


There are roughly 50 million students in the U.S. public school system.

In large urban districts, the drop-off has been particularly acute. The Los Angeles Unified School District’s noncharter schools lost some 43,000 students over the past two school years. Enrollment in the Chicago schools has dropped by about 25,000 in that time frame.

But suburban and rural schools have not been immune.

In the suburbs of Kansas City, the school district of Olathe, Kansas, lost more than 1,000 of its 33,000 or so students in 2020 as families relocated and shifted to private schools or home-schooling; only about half of them came back to this school year.

In rural Woodbury County, Iowa, south of Sioux City, enrollment in the Westwood Community School District fell by more than 5% during the last two years, to 522 students from 552, despite a small influx from cities during the pandemic, the superintendent, Jay Lutt, said. Now, in addition to demographic trends that have long eroded the size of rural Iowa’s school populations, diminishing funding, the district is grappling with inflation, as the price of fuel for school buses has soared, Lutt said.

In some states where schools eschewed remote instruction — Florida, for instance — enrollment has not only rebounded but also remains robust. An analysis by the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank, concluded last month that remote instruction was a major driver around the country, with enrollment falling most in districts most likely to have delayed their return to in-person classrooms.


Private schools have also seen some gains in enrollment. Federal headcounts have not yet been released, but both the National Association of Independent Schools and the National Catholic Educational Association have reported increases that total about 73,000 K-12 students during the past two years.

At the same time, some families are leaving their local public schools — not because they are abandoning the system altogether, but because they have moved to other parts of the country that are more affordable.

Enrollment has surged as well in rural resort areas, driven by the relocation of tech workers and others able to work remotely, particularly after the pandemic set in.

School funding is tied directly to enrollment numbers in most states, and while federal pandemic aid has buffered school budgets so far, the Biden administration has made it clear that the relief is finite. Some districts are already bracing for budget shortfalls.

“When you lose kids, you lose money,” Roza said. “There’s no hidden piece to this puzzle. You have to close schools and lay off people. And every day you spend trying to avoid that, your kids are getting older and still not reading, and your district is spending money it’s not going to have.”

Few states illustrate the challenge as clearly as California, which educates roughly 1 in 8 of the nation’s public school children. For the first time in two decades, public school enrollment fell below 6 million this school year.

The defections spanned the economic spectrum. In affluent Laguna Beach, for instance, Dr. Ann Vu became so fed up with the public school district’s plan for reopening classrooms that, this year, she moved two of her four children to private schools.


“The kids just weren’t doing anything at all,” said Vu, a dermatologist who said her children are gone for good from the public system. At the Catholic high school where her daughter landed, the once-modest waitlist is 200 names long.

Up the freeway in Anaheim Hills, Jaime Parish’s three children also were gone from their former class as the year started. Rendered homeless in late 2020, they had struggled for months to keep up academically, shuffling for almost a year between motels, relatives and Parish’s 1997 Honda before they quietly stopped attending school entirely.

First their Wi-Fi was spotty. Then Parish’s mother got COVID-19. Then the car broke and a plan to move to Bakersfield fizzled. By February, a local nonprofit that helped them find housing could find no record of school enrollment for her sons, 17 and 6, or her daughter, 15.

“We tried,” said Parish, 38, who was camped under a bridge near Disneyland at one point. “But it just got too hard.”

Education officials say it is too soon to say how many students fell through the cracks of the public school system. Before the pandemic, enrollment had been declining overall in California, a function of high housing costs, lower birthrates and restricted immigration. But this year’s decline was tens of thousands of students larger than could be explained by demographic trends, relocations or defections to home-schooling or private schools.

The virus sapped many districts of the personnel to reliably track students who were truant or absent, and the state enrollment census was taken early in the year during a surge in infections that may have distorted the numbers.


Social service agencies throughout the state, however, say they have seen increasing demand from families whose children arrive for services unsure of their enrollment status.

“We’re seeing a huge influx of people who’ve lost housing,” said Cyndee Albertson, executive director of Family Promise of Orange County, which helped place Parish and her children in an extended-stay hotel room and enrolled them in nearby schools.

“The parents are afraid if they seek services, the protective services will take away their children, and the children don’t want to go to school when they can’t wash their clothes or shower,” Albertson said. “These situations are nothing new, but since the pandemic, they’ve gotten a lot more frequent and a lot worse.”

State education officials have appointed a task force to investigate the decline and to try to determine the whereabouts of unaccounted-for students and their reasons for leaving the public school system. The drop defies a significant infusion of money and manpower to keep students in classrooms, including mass COVID-19 testing and outreach for chronically absent students.

Policymakers are straining to avoid further losses. Some districts have resisted reinstating face masks, even amid a resurgence of COVID-19, because of the suspicion that mandates are turning off families. California lawmakers recently postponed the addition of COVID-19 inoculations to the list of required school vaccinations in part because some school superintendents worried about the potential hit on enrollment.

At the Capistrano Unified School District in the suburbs of Orange County, where homebuyers have long paid a premium for the public school system, more than 3,000 parents said in a survey last month that they would withdraw their children next school year if COVID-19 vaccines become mandatory for school attendance without at least a “personal belief” exemption.


“We love our school,” said Lisa Rogers, 38, a district mother of two. “But if my children are forced to wear masks again, or if I’m forced to vaccinate them against my will, I’m going to pull them out and home-school.”

A district spokesperson said Capistrano Unified had already lost more than 2,800 students since the pandemic started; the withdrawals suggested by the polls would remove about 1 student in 15 from classrooms and about $38 million from the district’s roughly $500 million budget next year, if they were to happen.

In some California cities, the situation is already urgent. Oakland’s school system is contemplating the shutdown or merger of nearly a dozen schools over the next two years, an exercise that has unleashed protests, vandalism, a one-day teacher strike and a recent school board resignation. In Southern California, where home prices have been soaring, parents have been fighting the closure of a long-standing neighborhood school in Inglewood.

“It was little by little,” said Mahtab Thorson, an Orange County mother of three, estimating that her middle son has lost some 30 classmates since he entered kindergarten in 2020. “A kid would drop off. A kid would drop off. Another kid would drop off. I’d mention a name, and he’d say, ‘Oh, they’re not there anymore.’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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