Public school enrollment remains down for a second consecutive year, at 49.5 million in fall 2021 compared to 49.4 million in fall 2020, according to preliminary federal counts from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. Comparatively, pre-pandemic enrollment was at 50.8 million students in fall 2019.
However, when broken down by grade, fall 2021 enrollment data shows a 14% increase for pre-kindergarten and a 5% increase for kindergarten. Both grades experienced the steepest declines immediately following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Public school enrollment counts for grades 1-7 decreased year over year. White student enrollment also fell over the past year, from 22.6 million in fall 2020 to 22.4 million in fall 2021, while other student racial groups slightly increased or stayed the same.
Compared with fall 2020, total public school enrollment for Pre-K-12 "was unchanged" this past fall, said NCES Commissioner Peggy G. Carr in a statement.
However, enrollment changes varied by state, with most states experiencing less than 1% changes in enrollment. The largest enrollment increases — of more than 2% between fall 2020 and 2021 — were in Idaho, Montana and Pennsylvania. The largest decline was in New York, which reported a 2% decrease.
By comparison, some states experienced enrollment decreases as high as 5% in fall 2020.
The overall drop in enrollment since fall 2020 marks the reversal of near steady enrollment increases over the past two decades. Last year, Carr called this trend "preliminary but concerning."
However, rebounds in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten enrollments follow anecdotal evidence of and predictions for an influx of younger students who parents had redshirted.
“Research shows that these early years are essential in helping students succeed academically and socially,” said Mark Schneider, director of the Institute of Education Sciences, in a statement when enrollment levels first dropped in 2021. He added that "it is safe to assume that students who struggle the most may be the ones who really lost out.”
At the time, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said "it must be a top priority to reengage every student and family" — a sentiment reiterated by researchers who have repeatedly expressed concerns about the drop in enrollment and engagement since a few months into the pandemic.
The preliminary data release for the 2021–22 school year includes figures from 49 states and the District of Columbia. Data from the state of Washington was not available, and the reported enrollment numbers for Washington, as well as prekindergarten numbers for California and Oregon, were estimated.