COVID disruptions to the 2020-2021 school year caused changes in the US education system that will have long lasting effects. One of those changes – a significant decline in kindergarten enrollment – has experts wondering if districts will recoup those students or if they’ve left for good.
According to an analysis by Chalkbeat and the Associated Press, public school enrollment across all grade levels (K-12) fell by nearly three percent last fall. The most dramatic drops came at the elementary level: the National Center for Education Statistics, a federal agency that tracks and assesses education data, reported the combined number of preschool and kindergarten students decreased by 13 percent last year.
There is no solid data on where all these students went. Some received no structured learning. Some switched to private or religious schools, where enrollment dramatically increased and in-person learning was more consistent. Others were homeschooled, a learning option that saw dramatic jumps last year – the US Census Bureau reported more than 11 percent of households with school age children were homeschooling.
The long term question for public school administrators is this: if children start with private or homeschool options for kindergarten, will they ever return to public education? It’s unknown. Once students are enrolled elsewhere, making friends and learning well, parents may hesitate to make the switch to a public school. In the long term, this will affect public school district budgets and staffing.
In Springfield, Missouri, Superintendent Carol Embree told the school board last June that 49 teaching positions would go unfilled for the 2021-2022 year, in anticipation that the district would only recapture about half of the 1,500 students they lost in 2020-21. In Springfield, 80 percent of the enrollment drop was at the elementary level.
Other learning platforms, on the rise as the school choice movement continues its momentum, saw a huge opportunity during the pandemic. Parents nationwide continue to have more choices on where to enroll their children from kindergarten on. Where once the options were limited to private school or homeschooling, today private, online education providers are expanding their reach and gaining students rapidly.
FaithPrep Academy is one private online provider that was given provisional state accreditation by the Indiana Department of Education this year. While FaithPrep is only open to Indiana students now, it plans to be accessible nationwide by fall 2022.
Chuck Wolfe, founder and CEO of FaithPrep, says on the school’s website: “When the pandemic opened up the world to the possibility and benefits of online learning, I knew it was time to launch a network of faith-based online schools and programs that would serve students in the US and around the world.”
Will students who enrolled elsewhere remain out of public education for the duration of their K-12 years? Experts are watching the data closely.