Understanding COVID-19-Era Enrollment Drops among Early-Grade Public School Students

Empty classroom
An empty classroom (Wikimedia Commons)

The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly disrupted schooling nationwide, raising serious concerns about the impact of the pandemic on children’s learning, the ways online learning may be exacerbating racial inequities, and the need to balance the strong desire for in-person learning with the risks posed by the pandemic. To date, these debates have centered around the experiences of children still enrolled in public schools, either remotely or in-person. Relatively less has been written about the experiences of the “missing children”—those who have not enrolled in public school at all.

Public school enrollment has dropped nationwide, with the sharpest declines evident in the earliest grades: prekindergarten and kindergarten. A recent NPR poll of 60 districts in 20 states showed an average kindergarten enrollment drop of 16%. Another analysis, this one from 33 states, showed that roughly 30% of all K-12 enrollment declines were attributable to kindergarten. Although there has been less systematic reporting on prekindergarten enrollment, local accounts suggest striking declines.

These early-grade enrollment drops are troubling given the importance of early learning experiences for children’s school readiness. High-quality experiences in the early grades have also been linked to reductions in special education placements and grade retention, and increases in high school graduation rates and adult wages.

Further, enrollment declines could exacerbate already large socio-economic and race-based achievement gaps at school entry. However, there has been little data about these missing children to date, so the equity implications have been unclear.

As part of our partnership with the Division of School Readiness at the Virginia Department of Education, we examined how enrollment in prekindergarten and kindergarten changed between the fall of 2019 (pre-pandemic) and the fall of 2020 (mid-pandemic), as well as whether these patterns varied by students’ socio-economic status and race. As a point of comparison, we also looked at enrollment patterns for first through fifth grade.

Similar to findings from other states, we found very large drops in public school prekindergarten enrollment (20%) and kindergarten enrollment (13%). In grades one through five, drops were much smaller (4%-5.5%, as shown in Figure 1). However, these declines mask considerable variability by race and socio-economic status, as measured by the state’s “economic disadvantage” indicator.

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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