WHERE HAVE ALL the students gone?
California’s K-12 enrollment decline of more than 270,000 students since the pandemic began is largely attributable to people leaving the state, not enrolling children in transitional kindergarten or kindergarten, or deciding to home-school their children but failing to file the paperwork to account for them, the head of the state’s largest school district and other experts said Sunday.
“In Los Angeles, in a very, very obvious and evident way, the greatest loss was in (transitional) kindergarten and kindergarten students,” LA Unified School District Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told a gathering of education journalists. “You have to really accept that parents made a decision, ‘I’m not going to send my kid to pre-k or kindergarten.’”
Regardless of where the students ended up, their learning has been harmed, Stanford University education professor Thomas Dee said. Dee’s research described how the youngest students were most affected by not returning to school following COVID. His work was highlighted in a collaboration report that included EdSource, The New York Times and Big Local News, a data journalism project at Stanford.
“Enrollment data shows a disruption that students are experiencing, and those disruptions matter because research literature shows switching schools, particularly in a reactive manner, impacts development,” Dee said.
And “missing out on early childhood educational experiences can be really consequential,” Dee added.
6 million and falling
Across California, the number of students enrolled in the public school system dropped below 6 million this year for the first time in two decades. As districts navigated the sudden shift to virtual learning amid the pandemic, declines steepened as many families faced extra barriers, considered alternatives to the public school system or chose to delay enrollment for their youngest learners.
The enrollment declines, both in California and nationally, are going to lead to fiscal impacts and school closures in the years ahead, said Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.
“You’re going to have to sell buildings when they become empty. You’re going to have to exit staff because you won’t need the number of teachers that you have,” Domenech said. “Parents didn’t want their children in school because they were afraid.”
But, he added, the impact of the pandemic on students is profound.
“The whole virtual learning experience was a fiasco because school districts were not prepared for virtual learning,” Domenech said. Nationally, there’s “a pulling away of students from the public school system because of the impact of COVID.” But he said it’s unclear how many of the students will return.
The three men spoke Sunday afternoon at the national conference of the Education Writers Association in Orlando, Florida.
In Los Angeles, enrollment has been steadily declining for two decades. The district has 58 percent of the student population it had at its peak in the early 2000s, now at 430,000 students.
But data shows those students did not migrate in large numbers to private and charter schools, the superintendent said. Charter schools in the district also had an enrollment decline of about 2 percent during the pandemic, he said.
Sending out search parties
LAUSD’s enrollment decline has only increased since the pandemic hit. The district lost “9,000 kindergartners when the pandemic hit,” Carvalho said. “That’s a huge, a huge number.”
The district has hired people to go into neighborhoods to try to track down missing students and interview their parents, he said, describing a massive push in which he and other top administrators have joined others to try to keep track of 30 children each.
In some cases, he said, district workers have found that undocumented families left the country during the pandemic “because there was no opportunity to work. The kids left with the families. And they left by the thousands.”
In other instances, he added, families left California for other states such as Florida “because of political ideology and lower taxes. If they had the means, parents made decisions.”
They went to another state where “their child could go to a school that was more aligned with their own beliefs in terms of medicine and in terms of schooling.”
Perhaps the biggest problem in figuring out the decline student by student is the lag in parents letting the district officially know they have decided to home-school their children by filing an affidavit with school officials.
“Parents are taking their time to file the documents,” he said.
Statewide, during the height of the pandemic, a record 35,000 families had filed an affidavit with the state to open a private home school, but the numbers dropped the following year, according to California Department of Education records. That level is still much higher than the 15,000 affidavits filed in the years prior to the pandemic.
According to LAUSD’s enrollment analysis conducted as a part of Carvalho’s 100-day plan that launched when he became superintendent in February, LAUSD has seen the most significant declines by grade at the elementary school level and the most significant declines geographically among west and central local districts over the last six years.
The district has also noticed that the largest drops have been among middle-class families, but that analysis does not take into account the students who left to attend the City of Angeles virtual school during the pandemic.
LAUSD doesn’t consider private schools a large factor in its enrollment decline because local private school enrollment has also been on the decline for the past few years, dropping more than 6 percent since 2017. Reflective of the national trend, homeschooling in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim metropolitan statistical area doubled to 8 percent in 2020.
EdSource reporters Kate Sequeira and Diana Lambert contributed to this report.