Public schools concerned over pandemic’s long-term impact on enrollment

The pandemic may be behind us, but its ripple effects will be felt for years in public schools. Like most states, Minnesota’s public schools experienced a sizable loss of students during the 2020-21 lockdowns. Over the last two academic years, more than 2.5 percent of Minnesota’s public school students — about one in 40 — have exited the system, according to the American Enterprise Institute’s national Learn Tracker. In general, schools that stuck with remote learning longer lost more students than those that reopened sooner.

Rochester Public Schools is among the districts grappling with the long-term impact on enrollment for the next decade. While attendance stabilized this year, a new report unveiled by the school board points to a likely continuation of the decline in enrollment that started during the pandemic, according to the Post-Bulletin.

Cooperative Strategies developed four possible scenarios for the district’s enrollment over the next decade: low, moderate, recommended, and high. Three of those scenarios show enrollment dropping from its current number of 17,800 students.

The district had been recording steady growth until the pandemic. It then lost more than 600 students in the fall of 2020.

“Prior to the pandemic, we were on this trend: 100, 200 kids — up up up every year. There wasn’t any end in sight,” RPS Finance Director John Carlson said.

Of course virtually everything a school district does depends on the number of students in attendance.

Enrollment is vastly important information to the district. It affects everything from the number of staff members the district can hire to the amount of state aid available. Part of the reason for the school district’s current budget crises is because of the large drop of students in 2020.

RPS had reached an enrollment high the year before the pandemic, recording 18,296 students during the 2019-20 school year.

Under the projections in the district report, enrollment could drop as low as 13,500 students or increase to 19,430, depending on the accuracy of the underlying assumptions down the line. The most likely outcome by the consultant put the number at 15,700, down some 2,600 students from the district’s peak. But the biggest variable is the extent to which districts can successfully woo those who left.

In spite of the difficulty associated with winning families back, [Superintendent Kent] Pekel said it is important to try to build the district’s enrollment numbers back up while preparing for the possibility that the projected decline could materialize.

“I would say we need to have plan A, plan B and plan C so that we can respond to all of these possibilities in a really clear, important way,” Pekel said. “And we need to be very aggressive about addressing the challenges we have in our system and then building on our strengths so that we are the provider of choice.”

Districts all over the state face a similar challenge. AEI’s enrollment tracker website includes this reality check for public schools seeking to boost attendance lost during the lockdowns:

Every district across the nation has been disrupted by COVID. The road to recovery for schools will be long, especially for those that were more COVID-cautious.