Distance education has lowered public school enrollment, study finds


About 300,000 American students did not attend public school last year because their schools did not offer in-person learning, estimated a team of researchers from Stanford University.

That explains about a quarter of the overall decline in enrollment in public schools across the country during the pandemic, when enrollment fell by around 1.1 million students.

“It’s a pretty stark indicator that parents, especially parents of young children, have found the offer of distance education only quite objectionable, and many have chosen to leave,” said Thomas Dee, professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education which co-author of the working document released on Saturday. “Anyway that breaks, it’s going to have educational implications.”

Not having an in-person learning option reduced kindergarten enrollment by about 3% to 4%, the researchers found, and those numbers tended to increase in states that don’t require Kindergarten. Fully virtual plans may also have contributed to more absences among younger students.

The effect was smaller for older students, with all-virtual learning reducing elementary school enrollment by 1% and having no noticeable effect on middle and high school enrollment.

New analysis confirms previous Chalkbeat and Associated Press reports that found white student enrollment fell more in states where students had fewer options to learn in person. While schools nationwide are promising in-person learning for the coming school year, the numbers also illustrate the scale of the task ahead for districts seeking to re-enroll students who started their school careers elsewhere.

The researchers analyzed enrollment data from 875 school districts, examining the 2020-2021 counts and five years of historical data to account for changing demographics. (The districts they looked at tended to be more urban and suburban and enroll more students of color than the country as a whole, although their enrollment trends before the pandemic followed the country as a whole. Researchers linked this to data from Burbio, which tracked the type of school district instruction offered during the pandemic.

In these districts, the researchers found that offering a mix of in-person and virtual education did not have a noticeable effect on student enrollment. But offering only distance education has reduced enrollment by a 1.1 percentage point.

Providing distance-only education further impedes enrollment in public schools in school districts that serve rural communities, higher concentrations of Hispanic students, and lower concentrations of black students. This matches polls which have shown black parents to be more wary of in-person instructions and more supportive of virtual plans throughout the pandemic.

The long-term effects of these patterns will depend on where the students ended up instead of the public school, Dee said. Some students may have attended private kindergarten, while others may have skipped kindergarten altogether.

“They’re going to bring very different readiness to learn challenges to the classroom,” Dee said. However, if many parents held up their young one-year-olds, it could create unusually large kindergarten classes this fall with more students of varying ages and abilities.

Many school districts have taken extra steps this spring and summer to reconnect with families and encourage them to enroll their children in school. Some communities covered road signs, while others organized virtual tours to show families the health and safety precautions they were taking.

In Spokane, Wash., Where students started last school year fully online, enrollment has fallen nearly 7%. Officials there used text messages and mail to reach families and highlighted their plans to reduce class size as a selling point.

“We want to create as much predictability and try to alleviate the feeling of the unknown and the fear as much as possible,” Superintendent Adam Swinyard said in June.

In Little Rock, Arkansas, Literacy Coach Pamela Criss hopes the students her school district couldn’t count last year will return. Her district offered both all-virtual and all-in-person instruction last fall, and saw enrollment drops of just over 3%, mostly in kindergarten and other elementary grades. The district had lost registrations before the pandemic, but the drop was more pronounced last year.

“We had so many students who didn’t show up on the list, they weren’t in school, they weren’t on Zoom,” Criss said. “We wonder where are these students? Are they at home or have they gone elsewhere?

Today, Criss, who trains teachers and helps students across the district improve their reading skills, wants to make sure educators take a close look at the academic performance of these students and help them out if needed. .

“I wanted to look at their data to see if it was the students who were already late,” she said. “We have to be very intentional and determined in our planning, in our teaching and in our learning. Because we just can’t leave it to chance.


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