Public school enrollment in 2020–2021 fell by 3 percent nationally compared to a year earlier, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), with pre-K and kindergarten jointly seeing a sharp 13-percent drop.
The stark numbers represent the biggest year-over-year decline in enrollment since the start of the century, with the drop concentrated among the youngest learners, the NCES figures show.
Pre-K saw a 22-percent decrease, kindergarten enrollment fell by 9 percent, grades 1–8 experienced a 3-percent drop, while grades 9–12 saw enrollment rise by 0.4 percent. The figures are preliminary, with the final results expected next spring.
NCES Acting Commissioner Peggy Carr said in a statement cited by K-12 Dive that the figures are “preliminary but concerning,” adding that the enrollment drops were “widespread and affected almost every single state and every region of the country.”
The agency’s enrollment figures reinforce the view that the pandemic-related disruptions drove many families to switch to private schools or homeschooling.
At the same time, with the outbreak increasingly showing signs of tailing off, school districts across the United States are hiring additional teachers in anticipation of what is expected to be one of the largest kindergarten classes ever as enrollment rebounds.
Robin Lake, an education researcher and director for the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan think tank, told K-12 Drive that surveys indicate that school districts can expect a “flood of young kids” next fall, posing a logistical challenge as they plan funding, staffing, and space.
Educators are also bracing for many students to be less prepared than usual due to lower preschool attendance rates.
“The job of the kindergarten teacher just got a lot harder,” said Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. He co-authored a report that found that the number of 4-year-olds participating in preschool fell from 71 percent before the pandemic to 54 percent during the pandemic.
BY TOM OZIMEK