New Jersey public school enrollment has fallen by 18,000 since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic

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Enrollment in New Jersey’s traditional public schools has fallen by about 18,000 in the two years since the pandemic led to school closures and other classroom disruptions, according to new enrollment data from the state Department of Education.

The losses occurred in urban centers and suburban neighborhoods across the state. In October, Passaic reported 800 fewer students enrolled in its schools compared to two years earlier. In Toms River, the loss topped 600. Enrollment in Atlantic City fell by more than 400, as did the South Orange-Maplewood District. Enrollment at Edgewater has fallen by nearly 300 students, or 30% of its school population in 2019.

The numbers reflect a national trend, with public school enrollment dropping by at least 1.2 million nationwide during the pandemic, according to an enrollment tracker from the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute. While the Garden State’s public school losses aren’t as dramatic as those in other states — New York City public school enrollment fell 5% — the two-year drop is the most significant. that New Jersey has experienced in recent memory.

The declines aren’t unprecedented: From September 2016 to September 2018, New Jersey’s traditional public school enrollment fell nearly 14,000. And year-over-year enrollment changes over the decade have been negative in all but two years.

It’s unclear to what extent the COVID restrictions fueled the decline in enrollment. Newark, the state’s largest school district, retained its mask mandate for months after the state said districts could allow children not to wear masks and its enrollment rose by nearly 4,000 over the past two years.

But critics of the COVID-19 measures implemented in schools across the country from the start of 2020 – mandatory masking, remote learning, quarantine – say these changes have prompted parents to withdraw their children from public schools and to enroll them elsewhere, or home school them.

A spokesperson for the teachers’ union, the New Jersey Education Association, warned that there could be other reasons for the drop in enrollment, such as the steady decline in birth rates seen nationwide.

Enrollment figures, though recently released by state education officials, come from reports that public school districts submit to the state each October, and it’s possible enrollment has rebounded in some districts since then. during. Toms River Schools spokesman Mike Kenny said the 14,000-student Ocean County district had gained 200 students since October.

Kenny said it would be difficult to cite reasons for the 2019-21 decline, adding that it would be “unlikely” to quickly recover the 600 students lost since 2019.

“We are currently trending upwards, and our enrollment/demographic data shows us stabilizing at a slight increase from our current levels over the next five years, he said.

The Ministry of Education previously reported a drop of 33,000 students between the 2018-19 and 2020-21 school years. These numbers were based on the June District Enrollment Reports of those years.

How New Jersey got away with it

New Jersey had a total of 1,320,225 students enrolled in traditional public schools as of October 2019. The state’s first coronavirus case was identified in March 2020 and Governor Phil Murphy ordered public schools to begin the distance learning that month.

As of October 2020, enrollment had fallen to 1,304,920 students, a decrease of 15,305 nearly twice as large as any year-to-year change dating back at least a decade.

Last October, enrollment fell again, to 1,302,139, for a total of 18,086 fewer students than two years earlier.

The drop in enrollment at traditional public schools came as charter schools saw enrollment increase nearly 6%, from 55,604 in October 2019 to 58,777 last October.

The drop of 800 students in the Passaic School District, which educates about 13,000 students in 18 schools, was the largest in the state. Three districts in Ocean County — Toms River, Lakewood and Jackson Township — lost about 600 each, with Lakewood’s loss accounting for 11% of its 2019 enrollment. In Montclair, there were 542 fewer students at the start of the current school year compared to pre-pandemic figures, a drop of 8%.

About 150 districts have gained students since 2019, most under 50 students. Newark’s enrollment increased by 3,900. The Trenton District grew by 1,800, and Plainfield gained nearly 1,500.

Overall, enrollment in traditional New Jersey public schools has fallen 1.4% over the past two years. The decrease from the previous two-year period was 0.02%.

The decline in enrollment from 2019 to 2021 was not seen across all demographic groups. Including charter school enrollment, the number of white students in state public schools fell by 39,000 and the number of Asian students by 2,400. Black enrollment rose by 900 and the number of Latino students increased by 20,100.

Why the change?

A spokesman for the state Department of Education said he could not speculate on the reasons for the drop.

Danielle Farrie of legal advocacy group Education Law Center said it’s unclear what’s causing the drop in enrollment, adding that the pandemic has massively disrupted two school years and likely caused parents to send their children to schools. private or chartered that have remained open.

“I think it’s difficult that districts have found themselves in a tight spot over the past year, trying to make the most of a very delicate situation in terms of prioritizing student health and safety with the in-person learning,” Farrie said.

With fewer COVID restrictions this year, she added, “some of those fears will go away and hopefully we’ll start to see enrollment rebound.”

The rate of white students enrolled in public schools had steadily declined before the pandemic, Farrie noted.

Nat Malkus, associate director of educational policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, is the founder of AEI’s enrollment tracker, which reports that 25 states have had larger enrollment losses than New Jersey since 2020. COVID restrictions like mask mandates are driving enrollment declines in public schools, Malkus says.

“I don’t think the lesson there is is ‘people hate masks, and so they won’t come back to school,'” he said. “But I think the masks point to bigger shifts in the school day, a longer and more permanent departure from normalcy, and I think that’s what’s driving these declines in enrollment.”

Steve Baker, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, said falling birth rates could also explain declining public school enrollment in New Jersey, and he bristled at the idea that the declining enrollment means parents have pulled their children out of public schools.

“That seems like a pretty politically convenient interpretation that could overlook a much more obvious underlying cause,” he said. “What if there were just fewer school-age children each year?”

Baker called the American Enterprise Institute a “notorious anti-public education.”

Brooke Rigilano and her husband pulled their five children out of Runnemede public schools last year due to pandemic rules and disruption. Rigilano said she disliked masks, contact tracing and quarantine rules, but continuing remote learning has also become an issue. The children are all homeschooled now.

“We never thought about homeschooling before the pandemic. And when we started homeschooling, we thought, ‘When everything calms down and gets back to normal, we can send them back,'” she said. “But not everything is going back to normal. Schools have adjusted everything. Because of the lack of learning during the pandemic, everyone is behind. Instead of helping kids catch up, I have l feel like they’re lowering the standards.”


New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact editor Terrence McDonald with any questions: info@newjerseymonitor.com. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

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