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US public school rolls drop amid pandemic

Angela Atkins works outside her home in Oxford, Miss., on Dec. 18 while her two sons, Jess and Billy, focus on schoolwork. The Associated Press

By Kalyn Belsha and Gabrielle LaMarr

Chalkbeat

By Leah Willingham and Larry Fenn

The Associated Press

Fearful of sending her two children back to school as the coronavirus pandemic raged in Mississippi, Angela Atkins decided to give virtual learning a chance this fall.

Almost immediately, it was a struggle. Their district in Lafayette County didn’t offer live instruction to remote learners, and Atkins’ fourth grader became frustrated with doing worksheets all day and missed interacting with teachers and peers. Her seventh grader didn’t receive the extra support he did at school through his special education plan — and started getting failing grades.

After nine weeks, Atkins switched to homeschooling.

“It got to the point where it felt like there was no other choice to make,” she said. “I was worried for my kids’ mental health.”

By taking her children off the public school rolls, Atkins joined an exodus that one state schools chief has warned could become a national crisis. An analysis of data from 33 states obtained by Chalkbeat and The Associated Press shows that public K-12 enrollment this fall has dropped across those states by more than 500,000 students, or 2%, since the same time last year.

That is a significant shift considering that enrollment overall in those states has typically gone up by around half a percent in recent years. And the decline is only likely to become more pronounced, as several large states have yet to release information. Chalkbeat and AP surveyed all 50 states, but 17 have not released comparable enrollment numbers yet.

The data, which in many states is preliminary, offers the clearest picture yet of the pandemic’s devastating toll on public school enrollment — a decline that could eventually have dire consequences for school budgets that are based on headcounts. But even more alarming, educators say, is that some of the students who left may not be in school at all.

“I would like to hope that many of them are from homes where their parents have taken responsibility on their own to provide for their education,” said Pedro Noguera, the dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, adding that affluent families will have an easier time doing that. “My fear is that large numbers have simply gotten discouraged and given up.”

So far, many states have held off on making school budget cuts in the face of enrollment declines. But if enrollment doesn’t rise, funding will be hit.

“We’ve been trying to scream from the hilltops for quite some time that this is happening,” Kirsten Baesler, North Dakota’s schools superintendent, said of the enrollment declines. “And it could be a national crisis if we don’t put some elbow grease into it.”

The declines are driven by a combination of factors brought on by the pandemic. Fewer parents enrolled their children in kindergarten, and some students left public schools for other learning environments. At the same time, students who are struggling to attend classes, as many are right now, may have been purged from public school rolls for missing many days in a row. That is a typical practice, though there is some more flexibility now.

The Chalkbeat/AP analysis shows that a drop in kindergarten enrollment accounts for 30% of the total reduction across the 33 states — making it one of the biggest drivers of the nationwide decline. Kinder­garten is not required in over half of states, and many parents have chosen to skip it.

Some aren’t sure it would be worth it for their children to learn virtually, while others don’t want their kids’ first experience with school to include wearing a mask.

It’s difficult to say how much of the decline is due to students leaving public schools for private schools and home schooling — as parents sought learning environments that might adapt better to the unusual year — because not all states track that. In states that do, those are contributing factors but don’t account for the full decline.

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