In the wake of pandemic school closures, school districts in Washington state saw their enrollments decline by tens of thousands of students. The statewide drop, calculated between fall 2019 and fall 2020, was among the largest in the country.
New state data from this fall shows that school systems still have not recovered their losses, leaving open questions about when — and if — these students will return.
Between October 2019 and October 2020, 39,000 fewer students enrolled in public school, about a 3.5% drop. The numbers weren't distributed evenly across grades — the most pronounced losses were among younger students; the number of kindergarten students plummeted by 14%. By this fall, the state's enrollment had only grown by a thousand students.
At the same time, the state's home-schooled population has ballooned, nearly doubling in size during the first full school year of the pandemic, 2020-21. Many fled citing the uncertainty and logistical problems that public schools faced.
"The remote learning for us — it was too much," said Allison Peterson, a mother of three who home-schooled her three children for all of last school year. With home schooling, Peterson said, the family had a lot more "flexible time."
The drop in enrollment is bad news for public schools financially. Collectively, school districts will lose about $500 million in state funding in the next budget, according to state Superintendent Chris Reykdal. He has already signaled that he will ask state lawmakers to hold funds steady for the districts, which receive dollars based on the size of their rosters.
"I'm gonna make a real hard push here," said Reykdal in an interview last week, explaining that the losses are small enough that it would be difficult for school districts to restructure their costs. "When it's this sort of subtle thing, it's the worst-case scenario."
Districts have been tallying up the damage. Seattle is down 3,400 students since 2019. This year, the district estimates it will operate with $28 million less in funding, according to a recent Seattle School Board presentation. There is "potential" for some of those students to return during the second semester of the year now that the vaccine is available for children ages 5 through 11, the presentation said.
For the short term, money from the pandemic federal stimulus packages aimed at schools should exceed the money lost by enrollment declines in most school districts, according to an analysis from Georgetown University's Edunomics Lab.
There could also be unintended consequences to the state holding funding at pre-pandemic enrollment levels, the analysis says.
"The movement of students may not be correlated to student poverty rates," Marguerite Roza, an education finance professor, wrote in an email. That money "may be going out in ways that disproportionately protect some districts [which may or may not be higher poverty]."
The demographics of kids who have left (or never entered) public schools are still unclear. The state has yet to release those details. But state officials suspect many of them have stayed home.
Home-schooled students grew from 21,000 to 40,000 students between 2019 and 2020.
There isn't a count yet available for home-schooled kids this school year, but Jen Garrison Stuber, advocacy chair for the Washington Homeschool Organization, says she expects the number to hold steady.
After school closures, parents flocked to this model for stability, Garrison Stuber said. Now it's an appealing option for families for a wide variety of reasons. Some are afraid of sending their children back before they have received the pediatric vaccine. Others began schooling at home out of frustration with mask and vaccine mandates.
Now, many have adapted to the flow of home schooling and don't want to shake their arrangements up again, she said.
"I used to say I would never home-school my own kids," said Peterson, a former elementary school teacher who lives in the Northshore School District area. "That it would be too much time and too much work, that we'd get sick of each other."
But she found that the arrangement actually allowed her kids to learn what they needed in a shorter period of time each day. They didn't need to account for the extra minutes in the school day to take attendance or line everyone up for recess. The kids could move at their own pace.
They also took regular field trips. During a unit on farming and food, Peterson managed to persuade some local farmers to let her kids tour their facilities. Through a connection with a friend, she also had her kids Zoom with a NASA engineer to learn about space travel.
The Petersons gave their kids a choice about whether they wanted to return to in-person public school this year. Their son Jacob has been attending third grade in person since September, and their daughter, Hannah, will head back to kindergarten in January after she's had her second dose of the vaccine.
Their oldest, 11-year-old David, will stay at home, where the pace aligns better with his learning style, Peterson said.
Though in many cases private schools opened for in-person learning earlier than public schools, these schools didn't see the same boom between 2019 and 2020. (Data this school year hasn't been released.) Statewide, private schools only saw an increase of about 800 students overall.
The Puget Sound region's Catholic school system, which enrolls about 20,000 students across nearly 70 schools, saw a 6% increase in enrollment between 2020 and 2021, according to the Archdiocese of Seattle.
Seattle-area districts were among the last to start schooling in person, many of them under the pressure of a statewide order.
"We didn't skip a beat. Within 72 hours, all of our schools had switched to remote learning," said Kristin Moore, director of marketing and enrollment for the Archdiocese. "And working so close with the health department, we had a staggered start last fall."
It was a word-of-mouth movement, Moore said. Public and private school parents would talk among themselves at sporting events, comparing school opening dates.
Like the Petersons, Amy Kelly and her family also left public schools because of challenges with remote learning. Her two sons, who used to attend Shoreline Public Schools, now attend St. Luke School, a Catholic school in Shoreline. Since enrolling, the boys have taken an interest in community service, and the welcoming parent community has been "life changing," Kelly said. The family is now even contemplating becoming Catholic.
The growth has been great, Moore said. But "we couldn't take everybody even if we wanted to. We want strong public schools."