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Pandemic Seems To Be Driving School Enrollment Down, NPR Investigation Shows

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Fall count day is this week in many states. That is the day when schools have to submit enrollment numbers to determine state funding for the next year. And this year, the pandemic seems to be driving down enrollment. NPR has documented drops in dozens of districts across the country. NPR's Anya Kamenetz was part of that investigation, and she joins us now.

Hey, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey. So tell us more about what you found. Like, what are some of the trends in school enrollment that you're seeing right now?

KAMENETZ: So we should say there's almost 14,000 school districts in the country, and we're not going to get national numbers until the spring. But with the help of our member stations and Marco Trevino (ph), our intern, we collected information on 60 districts, including some of the largest districts in the country. Miami-Dade County Public Schools is missing 16,000 students. Los Angeles Unified is missing 11,000. Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina has 5,000. Utah, Virginia and Washington states are all reporting statewide drops. And that is all in contrast with general trends over the last 15 years of steadily rising enrollment.

CHANG: Wow. Those drops sound staggering. What do we know about why districts are seeing these drops in enrollment?

KAMENETZ: So in lots of places, Ailsa, they're seemingly concentrated in elementary school, especially kindergarten. On average, we saw a 16% drop in kindergarten enrollment. And, you know, a lot of parents and also educators are kind of skeptical about Zoom kindergarten as an option. On the other hand, families may be fearful about sending kids to school in person. They may simply be confused and fed up. You know, reportedly, Miami-Dade Public Schools in Florida lost many hundreds of students even after the start of the school year when they experienced days of cyberattacks in the first days of remote learning.

CHANG: So where are all these thousands and thousands of students going instead?

KAMENETZ: You know, kindergarten in particular is not compulsory in most states. So families do have the option of simply sitting out that year, and they can start kindergarten a year late. That's sometimes called redshirting. Home school groups say interest is up. And in many places, you know, private schools are open where the public schools are closed. For example, I talked to Megan Olszewski (ph), who made this decision in Austin with her kindergarten-aged son Jonah (ph).

MEGAN OLSZEWSKI: We had, you know, signed him up to start in Austin ISD at the beginning of the year. And then, you know, in the late spring and the summer, we kind of realized that school wasn't going to look normal.

KAMENETZ: So Jonah is going to stay at his private Montessori preschool for another year. It's licensed as a day care, so the children don't have to wear masks. They're full time, in person. And meanwhile, Austin Public Schools started the year 5,000 students down...

CHANG: Wow.

KAMENETZ: ...And remotely. Yeah.

CHANG: What do you think? I mean, what kind of impact do you think this will have on public schools if these drops in enrollment get even more widespread?

KAMENETZ: You know, in public schools, generally, state funding follows the students. So it can be thousands of dollars gone for every student out the door. And, you know, unfortunately, who's going to be especially hard-hit are districts that are already serving low-income students...

CHANG: Right.

KAMENETZ: ...Because most of their funding comes directly from the state, whereas more affluent districts - they're funded more by property taxes. They're not as dependent on the state enrollment-based money. Of course, there are so many financial pressures on schools right now - PPE, additional custodial services, digital services. And as we've been hearing, it's not clear that there's any more federal aid coming before 2021.

CHANG: Exactly. OK. So clearly, this could be really detrimental for public schools, but what about for the kids? What are the concerns for them?

KAMENETZ: So, you know, again, inequality is exacerbated. Here are children who go to in-person private school or home schooling with a full-time parent. They might be ahead. But then there's kids who are spending the year, as one mom told me, with Elmo from "Sesame Street" as their teacher. And the research shows they're going to have potentially long-lasting setbacks from this.

CHANG: That is NPR's Anya Kamenetz.

Thank you, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.