Mississippi the Largest Decline in Enrollment in the Fall of 2020

Mississippi had the nation’s fastest-improving school system before the pandemic, but also the nation’s largest decline in enrollment in the fall of 2020 at 4.8%.

Last fall Chalkbeat featured Mississippi parent Angela Atkins to illustrate the trend:

Fearful of sending her two children back to school as the coronavirus pandemic raged in Mississippi, Angela Atkins decided to give virtual learning a chance this fall.

Almost immediately, it was a struggle. Their district in Lafayette County didn’t offer live instruction to remote learners, and Atkins’ fourth-grader became frustrated with doing worksheets all day and missed interacting with teachers and peers. Her seventh-grader didn’t receive the extra support he did at school through his special education plan — and started getting failing grades.

After nine weeks, Atkins switched to homeschooling.

“It got to the point where it felt like there was no other choice to make,” she said. “I was worried for my kids’ mental health.”

Atkins was hardly alone in seeking better alternatives for her family. Rather than enroll their young children in Zoom-kindergarten for instance, parents from around the country decided to “redshirt” their students from kindergarten. The Chalkbeat/AP analysis found a 30% total reduction in enrollment across the 33 states they were able to analyze came from a reduction in kindergarten enrollment.

I had assumed that this would be a largely temporary phenomenon- in the fall of 2021, schools may have a larger than average kindergarten cohort as people return, and a smaller than average 1st-grade cohort. Schools could accommodate this in part by shifting 1st-grade teachers into Kindergarten assignments. This will likely happen in many places, but then again, a growing rumbling from around the country indicates that parents may have other ideas. The Denver Public Schools for instance announced that applications for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten for the fall of 2021 had declined by 20%.

As Angela Atkins’ experience indicates, many families had a rough go of things during the pandemic and began to make alternative plans. Around the country, scattered rumblings indicate that we may be headed towards a second consecutive year of declining kindergarten enrollment, although both where and the extent to which this will happen remains entirely unclear at the time of this writing. The COVID-19 vaccines have not been approved for use in young children. Although research indicates that the flu is literally deadlier to young people than COVID-19 and the adult school staff have had access to vaccines, many people remain concerned. As many as a quarter of American parents indicate that they will keep their children at home in the fall of 2021.

The Mississippi Department of Education released more specific information about the fall of 2020 decline in enrollment, finding that 4,345 fewer kindergartens enrolled in 2020-21, compared to the same time last year. They also found that homeschool enrollment increased from 18,758 last year to 25,489 this year, removing an additional 6,731 students from public-school attendance rolls.

The Tyton Partners performed a panel study of the enrollment decisions and education spending of a panel of parents in the fall of 2020. Based on their panel, they estimated the above trends in enrollment for the fall of 2020. The closer you study these trends, the more dramatic they seem: large increases in homeschooling, charter school attendance, and micro-schools. To give some perspective, the charter school movement began in 1991 and it took 16 years nationally to reach the same 1.3 million student mark reached by full-time micro-school students last fall.

Almost out of thin air, 7 million students by their estimates attended Supplemental Pods in the fall of 2020. These are students who remained enrolled in a pre-existing school through digital learning arrangements, but who did so in small “pandemic pod” gatherings for the purpose of socialization and providing custodial care. Scattered amounts of formative assessment data from pods from the fall of 2020 have been released that are academically encouraging.

The Tyton Partner estimates likely underestimate the scale of loss in district enrollment if one broadens the lens to whether “enrolled” students were actually learning. An investigation of student engagement with distance learning in Chicago Public Schools for instance found that a quarter of students failed to log on once during the week studied.

Looking forward it is clear the COVID-19 pandemic has permanently changed K-12 education. Homeschooling is on the rise, and an entire new sector of micro-schools has been embraced by both teachers and families. Tremendous challenges lie ahead regarding student learning loss. Teachers and families also have the opportunity to shape education to suit the needs and preferences of their communities. Mississippi’s district schools are a much better option than they had been in the past but Mississippi parents have more schooling options than ever. Equitable access to these expanded opportunities however will require action by policymakers.