Bay Area student school enrollment declines continue during pandemic

Enrollment in California public schools plunged for the second straight school year under COVID restrictions, new figures released Monday show, with the number of K-12 students dipping below 6 million for the first time in more than 20 years, driven in part by dismal numbers in the Bay Area.

The state Department of Education’s new 2021-22 school year data show 110,000 fewer students signed up statewide than during the previous school year — a 1.8% decline — but less than the 161,000 decrease the year before when campuses closed and most public school kids were learning on-line.

In the six-county Bay Area, however, the second year of pandemic enrollment drops were even bigger than the first and more dramatic than the state’s decline. The 799,000 students enrolled this year is a near 4% slide from 2020-21.

Public school enrollment had already been steadily declining before COVID-19 upended daily school life, due to skyrocketing living costs, declining birth rates and migration patterns, a Bay Area News Group analysis published Sunday found. But the slide accelerated in the last two years when parents grew frustrated with distance learning. The new numbers seemed to indicate that many of them stuck with the options they turned to when their classrooms were shuttered.

The one exception was kindergarteners, who after posting one of the largest drops in enrollment last year were among the biggest increases this school year.

Julien Lafortune, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, said the bump in kindergarten students — although still down from pre-pandemic years — could signal a change of heart among parents who worried about enrolling their young ones in virtual classes for their first year of school, when hands-on interactions are so important. Many parents chose to keep them home or sent them to private schools that taught classes in person during the pandemic, he said.

Still the gains did not offset the effects of the COVID slide. “There really wasn’t a bounce back. There was kind of a continuation of those declines (in enrollment), more than expected,” Lafortune said.

Monday’s new figures revealed another surprising turn: Charter school enrollment fell 1.8% statewide last year. Enrollment in the independently operated public schools had been on the rise for years and now accounts for nearly 12% of all public school students. Large urban districts across the state accounted for nearly one third of the decrease in the current year, according to the California Department of Education. In contrast, enrollment in private schools — many of which kept their doors open during the pandemic — rose 1.7%, perhaps reflecting the desire of parents to have their children back in the classroom with a teacher and classmates.

The new data show Pacific Islander, White and Native American students had the largest enrollment declines, followed by White, Black, Asian and Latino students. There was also more than a 6% drop in homeless students, a 4% drop in foster youth, a 3% drop in socioeconomically disadvantaged students and a half of a percent drop in students with disabilities. One outlier was English learners, who had a boost with a more than 6% growth in enrollment from last school year.

Jonathan Kaplan, a senior policy analyst at the California Policy & Budget Center, said he’s concerned about the large declines in socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

“These are clear disproportionate declines,” Kaplan said. “We really need to learn more about these students and families’ experiences to understand why.”

Of the 12 largest school districts in the Bay Area, the most staggering drops this year were at Cupertino Union and San Jose Unified, for at least the second year in a row, and continued the districts’ downward trend. In the past five years, Cupertino’s enrollment fell by more than 24% and San Jose Unified’s by 16%. Over the same period, West Contra Costa Unified and fast-growing Fremont Unified had the smallest drops, at 4% each.

District leaders said the state’s report was not a surprise, given the trend over the past several years. They said they are taking further fiscal measures to grapple with the accelerated decline since the start of the pandemic — including cutting programs that once attracted more families to their schools.

“We unfortunately can’t control the price of housing and can’t control when people have chosen to have school-age children,” said Erin Lindsey, a spokeswoman for the Cupertino Union School District. Lindsey acknowledged that the pandemic impacted where Cupertino parents decided to send their children and said the district is focusing on providing an “excellent experience to families and students” to encourage those who are still there.

Leave a Comment