As a new academic year begins across the country, parents and children are still trying to recover from the lockdown-related disruptions of the past two years. Many students may take years to overcome the learning losses they suffered due to Covid lockdowns—and some might never overcome it at all.
A recently released study demonstrates the unnecessary nature of much of this damage. That analysis shows that public school districts with tighter Covid restrictions suffered larger enrollment losses, while showing little correlation with Covid case rates.
Diverging Enrollment Trends
The analysis, conducted by Nat Malkus of the American Enterprise Institute, analyzed enrollment data from 48 states (all except Kentucky and Tennessee). Overall, public school enrollment dropped by 2.7 percent in the first pandemic year, which began in the fall of 2020, and remained largely flat in the second pandemic year, which commenced last fall.
But cross-referencing these enrollment data with information on schools’ types of learning mechanisms reveals a different phenomenon. Malkus classified public school districts into three categories, based on their use of fully remote and hybrid methods of learning compared to fully in-person schools. The Return to Learn Tracker shows sharply divergent approaches to learning for the first pandemic year of 2020-2021—many schools remained fully remote or in hybrid form, while many others returned to fully in-person learning in the fall of 2020.
That natural experiment of districts’ differing approaches yielded different results for enrollment. Malkus found that the third of public school districts with the most remote learning during 2020-2021 lost additional students in 2021-2022. Conversely, the third of the districts with the most in-person learning during 2020-2021 gained back last year nearly half of the students they lost during the first year of the pandemic:
Political and Cultural Factors
The effect Malkus found regarding school lockdown policies held when examining other cultural and political factors that might correlate to pandemic-related behaviors. For instance, districts where Donald Trump won the presidential vote in 2020, where community masking (and school district masking policies) remained low, and vaccine hesitancy remained high all recovered some of the lost public school enrollment in the second year of the pandemic compared to the first.
Conversely, districts where Joe Biden won the presidential vote in 2020, where community and district policies regarding masking remained strict, and vaccine hesitancy stayed low all saw additional public school declines in 2021-2022 on top of the enrollment dips during the first pandemic year.
The study’s punchline comes when examining the relationship between Covid case rates (per 100,000 population) and public school enrollment. In this analysis, public school enrollments showed little variation between those districts with high Covid case rates and those with lower numbers of cases:
All this evidence suggests that a community’s political culture—but not the spread of the virus itself—played a strong role in whether parents pulled their students from public schools during the pandemic’s second year.
Lockdowns Costly for Districts and Students
Malkus concludes by attempting to quantify how much these public school enrollment losses will cost districts in federal and state funding, which generally is determined on a per-pupil basis.
For large districts of more than 25,000 students, those that remained the most remote will lose over four times as much ($26.6 million) in annual funding as those districts that most fully embraced in-person learning ($6.37 million) during the year 2020-2021. The more fully remote districts’ policies appear to have encouraged parents to look elsewhere to school their children, meaning those districts will take it on the proverbial chin financially as state and federal authorities re-adjust their budgets accordingly.
Of course, students and families themselves suffered the greatest losses from prolonged lockdowns. The re-allocation of resources away from the most pro-lockdown areas will provide a welcome, albeit delayed, reckoning for districts that inflicted the most damage on their own students.