Enrollment Forecasting and Potential Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Author: Charles Rynerson Published: August 16, 2022

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 disrupted in-person learning at school districts across the country, resulting in large enrollment losses for many districts in 2020–21. Some families moved, while others chose alternatives to district-run public schools such as homeschooling, online charters, or private schools. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that kindergarten enrollment fell by 9 percent between 2019–20 and 2020–21. Other elementary grades also saw losses, while high school enrollment saw little impact.

While many districts experienced an uptick in enrollment in 2021–22 as some students returned, other districts sustained additional losses, some even greater than in 2020–21.

While students who did not return by spring 2022 may return in the coming years, the pandemic will impact enrollment for at least the next decade, as many students who left will opt to remain in their current schools and programs. Housing prices, remote-work opportunities, and renewed interest in school choice have recently had and will continue to have an impact on if, where, and when students enroll in public schools. Not only did COVID-19 hamper enrollment, but the pandemic’s resulting economic downturn and general anxiety also exacerbated the long-term decline in births.

Districts without significant in-migration of young families may see significantly lower kindergarten enrollment beginning in 2026–27. Enrollment forecasts are critically important tools for all long-term planning efforts. They inform everything from staffing to school capacity planning at your school district. If your forecasts don’t take these uncertainties into consideration, they may not be as reliable as you need them to be to plan for the future.

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Benjamin Maloney, former FLO Senior Demographer and Data Analyst, contributed to this post.

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