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 Lafayette County district did not offer live instruction for distance learners, and the fourth-grader at Atkins became frustrated with having to do worksheets all day and failed to interact with them. teachers and peers. His seventh-grade student did not receive the extra support he received in school as part of his special education plan – and began to have failure grades.
After nine weeks, Atkins switched to home schooling.
“It got to the point where I felt like there was no other choice to be made,” she said. “I was worried about the mental health of my children.
By removing his children from public school lists, Atkins has joined an exodus that a public school leader says could turn into a national crisis. An analysis of 33 state data obtained by Chalkbeat and The Associated Press shows that K-12 public enrollment this fall has fallen in those states by more than 500,000 students, or 2%, since the same period. last year.
This is a significant change considering that overall registrations in these states have typically increased by around half a percent in recent years. And the decline will only get worse, as several large states have yet to release information. Chalkbeat and AP surveyed all 50 states, but 17 have yet to release comparable enrollment numbers.
The data, which in many states is preliminary, offers the clearest picture to date of the pandemic’s devastating toll on public school enrollment – a drop that could potentially have dire consequences for school budgets based on workforce. But what’s even more alarming, say educators, is that some of the students who have left may not be in school at all.
“I would like to hope that many of them come from homes where their parents themselves have taken responsibility for providing for their education,” said Pedro Noguera, dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, adding that affluent families will find it easier to do so. “My fear is that a large number of people have just become discouraged and given up.”
So far, many states have delayed budget cuts to schools in the face of declining enrollment. But if registrations don’t increase, funding will be hit.
“We’ve been trying to shout down the hills for a while that this is happening,” said Kirsten Baesler, superintendent of schools in North Dakota, of declining enrollment. “And it could be a national crisis if we don’t put a little elbow grease on it.”
The declines are due to a combination of factors brought on by the pandemic. Fewer parents have enrolled their children in kindergarten and some students have left public schools for other learning environments. At the same time, students who find it difficult to attend classes, as many are now, may have been removed from public school lists for missing several days in a row. This is typical practice, although there is more flexibility now.
Chalkbeat / AP analysis shows that a drop in kindergarten enrollment accounts for 30% of the total reduction in all 33 states, making it a major driver of the national decline. Kindergarten is not compulsory in more than half of the 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 children’s first experience in school to include wearing a mask.
It is 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 could better accommodate the unusual year – because not all states follow this. In states that do, these are contributing factors but do not represent the complete decline.
Massachusetts, for example, saw its K-12 enrollment drop 3%, to nearly 28,000. Nearly half of that was due to a sharp increase in the number of home-schooled or private school students. , but around 7,000 students are still missing, state officials said. The previous year, the state’s workforce had fallen by less than half a percent.
Landon, Kira Freytag’s freshman, was among the Massachusetts students who transferred to a private school this fall. He was enrolled in Newton Public Kindergarten this spring, but was struggling with distance learning. When it looked like this virtual setup would continue, Freytag and her husband applied to a Catholic school with in-person instruction.
“There is a lot of independence that comes with these years,” Freytag said. “It’s really hard to teach that on Zoom.”
Some states have gone to great lengths to try to find out where the students are. When Mississippi Superintendent of Schools, Carey Wright, found K-12 enrollment had fallen 4.8%, or nearly 22,000 students, she called on authorities to track down every student enrolled in the school. last year. They posted letters, made calls and even made house calls.
They found that kindergarten enrollment fell by 4,400 students and 6,700 more students enrolled in home schooling than usual, an increase of 36%. More students than usual have also left the state. And some 2,300 students have been transferred to a private school. That left the state with about 1,100 students that it couldn’t account for, even though it still tries.
“We couldn’t afford to have kids right at home and do nothing,” Wright said.
Many states were unable to locate all of the students who left. Some students may be homeschooled, but their state does not require families to register them. Some may have crossed state borders and did not transfer their files. Others may have stopped going to school because they are homeless, do not have a stable internet connection, work to support their families, or care for siblings – and were subsequently removed from their district lists.
Renee Smith, who helps low-income families navigate school options through her work with parent advocacy group Memphis Lift, said some families in her town have turned to Khan Academy, a course source free online, as an alternative to the virtual local district. learning option, but others “simply disappeared”.
An open question is whether students who have left the public school system will return when education gets closer to normal. Many educators believe that young learners who dropped out of kindergarten will return, but they worry about older students.
And many state superintendents and education advocates say school districts, state officials and social service agencies need to do more to locate missing students.
“The things that make a difference don’t come cheap,” said Rev. Larry Simmons, who is involved in an effort to reduce chronic absenteeism in Detroit. “Human beings addressing other human beings saying, ‘We miss you, we want you at school.’ “
Collin Binkley of the AP and Caroline Bauman of Chalkbeat contributed to this report.