A third grader does her school work at Highland Elementary School, in Las Cruces, New Mexico on March 4, 2022. - In late Jan., amid staffing shortages due to COVID-19, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham called in National Guard soldiers to fill the rolls of substitute teachers in order to avoid shutting down schools and making children return to remote learning. (Photo by PAUL RATJE/AFP via Getty Images)

Since spring 2020, more than 1 million students have left public schools nationwide. Immediately after school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that enrollment fell 3% the following 2020-21 school year.

New England public school systems haven’t been spared from the student exodus. Massachusetts public school enrollment fell by nearly 4%, or almost 37,000 students since fall 2019. Rhode Island reported a net loss of nearly 5,000 students from October 2019 to October 2021. Enrollment in Providence, Rhode Island, alone fell by about 2,400 students in a city that previously enrolled nearly 24,000. 

During the 2020-21 school year, Connecticut saw a 3% enrollment decrease—a decline that in the past would have taken more than five years. The state also saw excessive chronic absence, or students missing 15 days of school or more, among students of color, low-income students, and disabled students. Experts say there were a number of different factors that caused students to miss school in the first two years of the pandemic. Having reliable internet access was a challenge for remote students living in low-income communities, while the unpredictable schedules of parents working frontline service jobs staffing pharmacies, grocery stores, and providing delivery services contributed to student absences.  

Experts argue that declining enrollment rates and chronic absence were challenging issues before the pandemic and will continue well into the next decade. These issues continue to present school districts and local governments with the challenge of cutting excess school costs. School districts with declining enrollment risk losing funding because states base school spending budgets on daily attendance or yearly enrollment. The cost of employing teachers and staff and maintaining school buildings continues to increase even as fewer students enroll in public schools, forcing school districts to reduce costs by cutting staff, merging with other districts, or closing altogether.

Declining enrollment rates have long-lasting implications for school funding and a district’s local economy, but the fallout will inevitably have an even larger impact on vulnerable students well beyond the pandemic. Nationwide, school districts have struggled to meet transportation needs due to an ongoing school bus driver shortage that has worsened because of the pandemic, while the academic and emotional needs of students struggling to keep up with changing forms of learning.

Students were not the only ones who did not return to the classroom during the early months of the pandemic. In March 2022, nearly half of the nation’s public schools reported teacher vacancies. According to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics, teacher resignation was the main reason for the vacancies. Special education was the teaching position with the most vacancies, directly impacting Indigenous and Black students, who are the most likely to receive special education services.  

By the end of the 2020-21 academic year, students were an average of five months behind on math and four months behind on reading. Learning loss was more severe in predominantly Black and Latinx schools. For high school students, especially BIPOC and those from low-income backgrounds, the widening achievement gap led many to join the workforce, resulting in higher dropout rates. Experts predict that the inability to meet students’ needs, mainly for those who have been historically marginalized, will only worsen deep-rooted inequities in education and beyond. 

A push to consolidate

In many parts of rural New England, enrollment rates have been steadily declining for nearly two decades. According to a September 2020 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the school-age population in 40 counties in three northern New England states has consistently declined between 2000 and 2017. The decline shows no signs of ending and is projected to continue throughout Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine into 2030 in all but five counties.

The decline in student enrollment impacts school spending in nearly every New England county as district spending is connected to enrollment, said Riley Sullivan, the study’s author and a senior policy analyst for the New England Public Policy Center at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Research Department. As fewer students enroll in these smaller schools and per-pupil spending continues to increase, districts are forced to balance budgets by laying off or furloughing school staff.

Sullivan looked at the decrease in student enrollment over 15 years and found a direct correlation with the rise in closed schools.

“Something that did really surprise me was the amount of consolidation that happened over this period, especially in some of these really rural counties that have lower population levels; they saw declines in their total number of schools,” Sullivan said.

According to the report, 14% of northern New England public schools that were open in 2000 have since closed. Sullivan said he predicted permanent school closures but did not expect to see some 214 schools closed between 2000 and 2017 in Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire.

“That kind of finding, even though I knew there was a decline, seeing it that stark was really shocking,” Sullivan said.

Throughout the 20th century, states have consolidated school districts to reduce spending and improve efficiency. The National Center for Education Statistics found 117,108 school districts nationwide during the 1939-40 school year. About 75  years later, during the 2015-16 school year, the number of districts dropped 88% to 13,584.

State policies encourage consolidation by providing bonus funds for districts that merge or punish them by imposing penalties for districts that don’t consolidate.

In 2007, Maine required school districts to enroll a minimum of 2,500 students to reduce the number of districts from 290 to 80. Up until 2017, the state penalized schools that did not reorganize into other districts. One school faced an annual penalty of $160,000.

More recently, in 2015, Vermont implemented Act 46, a plan that combined smaller school boards into a single union district with one board. The program, which aimed to “improve education outcomes and equity” by having a larger but more efficient school structure, was met with support and backlash from parents and school staff across the state, as some welcomed the financial support of being part of a larger school district while others said they missed having autonomy over important staffing decisions at smaller school.

The underlying issue of attendance

Hedy Chang, the executive director and founder of Attendance Works, a national organization focusing on addressing chronic absence in K-12 students, said declining enrollment rates and school absence are parallel problems.

“What we’ve seen as chronic absence has at least doubled, and the communities that experienced educational inequities prior to the pandemic have the highest levels of chronic absence,” Chang said.

According to Attendance Works, missing more than 10% of school days, whether excused, unexcused or because of suspensions, can cause substantial difficulties when learning how to read and eventually impacts the ability to graduate from high school.

In 2015, President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act. The law replaced the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act and asked states to adopt an accountability system to measure achievement. As a result, many states began recording chronic absenteeism annual data to understand better the factors inhibiting student success. 

When schools closed in spring 2020 and adopted remote learning, Chang said many districts stopped collecting attendance, creating problematic data sets that generally undercounted absences and didn’t fully capture the magnitude of the problem.

“Last year, we started to see more kids than ever who were in a new category called extreme chronic absence, which is when you’re missing more than 50% of school,” Chang said. “If a kid is missing 50% or more, chances that they will enroll in the next year, based on common sense, are not very good.”

Reimagining the purpose of school

Chang added that when students stop going to school, the community feels the impact, mainly because they miss out on creating strong positive relationships with school staff members and peers.

“Our schools have been ravaged by the pandemic. A lot of teachers are retiring, we’re seeing a lot of staff turnover, and we still haven’t found a way to bring the whole community together to think about fostering those kinds of relationships,” Chang said.

Joshua Childs, an assistant professor of educational policy and planning at the University of Texas at Austin, focuses on how community intervention can impact chronic absence. According to Childs, the outbreak of COVID-19 highlighted how schools have long served as pivotal centers for communities. 

“Schools are more than just places where you learn ABCs and 123s. It’s a real place of interaction and social-emotional growth,” Childs said. 

Childs added that kids who miss school consistently, even outside of the pandemic, miss out on opportunities to engage with peers and civically within their communities. 

During the pandemic, Childs said, school closures heavily impacted students making critical transitions like those moving from high school to college. But he was also careful to mention that schools have also historically been places of harm for marginalized students.

“We should also recognize that for some students, closure of schools was a benefit. Lots of students thrive by not having to go into a building where they feel unsafe and uncared for or just have negative experiences compared to their other peers,” Childs said. “And that’s when we need to think long-term about school and the community. What does the community value?”

Places like New York City saw lower suspension rates during remote learning. Still, studies show that suspension rates among Black students and those in special education have been disproportionately high and seemed to be on the rise during the 2021-22 academic year. 

“It’s one thing to say we have declining enrollment, and our students are chronically absent, but not actually getting at the reasons why. We live in a country that talks a lot about hard work and rugged individualism, but when it really gets to doing the hard work of uncovering how we got here, why we are here, and how we address being here, we tend not to want to do all that,” Childs said.

Childs and Chang agree that addressing the lowering enrollment rate and chronic absence will require policymakers and community leaders to address longstanding questions about the purposes a school should serve during economically and socially uncertain times. However, Chang strongly warns against resorting to harsh measures to compel students back into the classroom.

“The most important thing we have to do is not resort to punitive approaches that, in fact, do not solve, resolve, or address the actual problems that are causing kids not to show up to school. That would be our biggest mistake right now,” Chang said.

Kio Herrera is a reporter based in New York City. She is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a Toni Stabile Investigative Journalism Fellow. Her previous...