Public school enrollment fell more sharply in school districts that stayed away longer compared to those that reopened earlier for in-person learning, a new analysis findsas well as in districts that have adopted heavy masking policies and those in counties that supported President Joe Biden over former President Donald Trump.
While the country’s K-12 public school enrollment has declined nationwide – dropping about 3% in the 2020-21 school year, according to the National Center for Statistics education – they rebound in districts that have reopened faster for in-person learning and continue to decline in those that have not, according to researchers from the American Enterprise Institute, who collected and analyzed the data registration information published on more than 12,000 school district websites.
“I thought we would see a relationship with in-person learning, but I didn’t think it would be that strong,” says Nat Malkus, deputy director of education policy studies at AEI and founding director of the “Return 2 Learn” organization. Tracker.”
“It shows how influential these disparate decisions were,” he says. “The registrations change – it’s a huge and fundamental family decision. Each of these numbers represents a family changing plans. It is not a small one-time decision like should we refinance our home. This is along the lines of should we change the institutional home of our child.
“I found it gripping.”
Districts that have stayed away the longest have seen an enrollment drop of about 4.4% over two years, losing about 1 in 22 students, while districts that reopened earlier have rebounded, losing about 1 in 93.
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Nineteen states experienced enrollment declines greater than 3%. Enrollment fell by more than 5% in New York, Oregon and Mississippi, with schools in New York seeing the largest drop, 5.9%.
Notably, schools in Florida, where after an initial closure in 2020, like much of the country, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has staked his political career on keeping schools open for in-person learning and passed legislation banning district officials to switch to virtual learning due to COVID-19 or imposing mask requirements, recorded a 2.2% drop in enrollment in the 2020-21 school year – just below the national drop in registrations of 2.5%.
However, the Sunshine State is one of 24 states where enrollment is rebounding in the 2021-22 school year, recovering enough students where its current enrollment drop is just 0.9% from in the 2019-2020 school year. Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Oklahoma, and South Carolina made the most significant improvements in student recovery, though they did not return to course enrollment levels of the 2019-2020 school year.
Only four states — Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota and Utah — have seen enrollment gains this current school year compared to the 2019-20 school year, and enrollment in Alabama have remained unchanged.
The researchers also analyzed enrollment data based on high-mask-use school districts versus low-mask-use districts and found a similar pattern: In the 2020-21 school year, both types districts have experienced declining enrollment. Districts with high mask usage lost about 2.9% of students, and districts with low mask usage lost about 2.4% of students. But in the 2021-22 school year, enrollment in districts with low mask use rebounded with a 1.9% drop in enrollment, while enrollment in districts with high mask use continued to decline. drop to 3.4%.
The trend also holds when evaluating registration data for county districts that backed former President Donald Trump versus President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.
“You see the same patterns,” Malkus says. “It’s not as clear cut, but you see pretty similar slopes the first year, diverging slopes the second year. What this tells me is that all of these things are tied together. These are all products of what I call the COVID cultural response.
The new enrollment data follows the release this week of a academic document by researchers from Brown University, MIT and the University of Nebraska, who found that students enrolled in schools that stayed remote for longer experienced significantly greater learning loss on standardized tests than those enrolled in virtual schools for less time.
Offering in-person, full-time, five-day-a-week learning — rather than all-virtual learning — reduced pass rate losses by 13 percentage points in math and 8 percentage points in English between 2019 and 2021 , the researchers found. And offering a hybrid model rather than an all-virtual approach reduced losses by 7 percentage points in math and 5-6 percentage points in English.
As the 2022 midterm elections approach, Republicans hope to weave these kinds of data points into a national narrative on pandemic schooling to energize voters — especially after the gubernatorial race of the year latest in Virginia showed the power of focusing on parental rights in public schools.
“I don’t think Republicans are going to be shy about ‘hitting that strong point,’ Malkus says.
In reality, the impact of pandemic schooling is much more nuanced: Of course, in-person learning was more common in more politically conservative areas, as well as those that tended to have higher incomes and those that educated mostly white students – although outliers to this profile certainly exist. The most remote districts tended to be among the largest and poorest in the country, enrolling large numbers of black and Hispanic students – whose families have borne the economic and health burden of the pandemic more than other groups. racial and ethnic backgrounds – and have faced long periods of high rates of community transmission.
Additionally, polls over the past year show time and time again that most families supported decisions made by their school district leaders about reopening for in-person learning or staying remote.
Malkus is less certain that masking debates will make headlines in the midterm elections, but hard data such as enrollment declines and academic achievement gaps in the districts that have stayed the longest in remorse will certainly be front and center – especially if predictions of a late summer surge by public health experts come to fruition.
“If this surge increases again and masks come back in some places, or if we see again like we have for the past two years, an August surge and schools close,” says Malkus. “If it happens in September, oh my God. It’s just going to supercharge this thing.