Public Schools

NYC’s public school enrollment drops by 43,000 — 4% decline steepest among younger students

Written by Mamie M. Arndt

City schools are reeling from a COVID-19-related 4% decline in enrollment — the number of students registered in the school system is down by 43,000, city officials said Thursday.

The drops were the biggest in the youngest grades, with pre-k enrollment down 13% and kindergarten numbers down 9% compared to the 2019-20 school year.

New York City — which has the country’s biggest school system — is experiencing enrollment declines like those in other districts across the country. Nationally, enrollment is also off steeply in lower grades, data shows.

Education Department officials said the “size of this year’s decline tracks with the COVID-19 pandemic and reflects national trends, which have also been impacted by COVID-19.”

New York’s system now has about 960,000 students, excluding charter school students — the first time time since at least 2006 DOE enrollment has dipped below one million.

Enrollment in Education Department-run schools has been on the decline since 2015, but the dropoff between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years was roughly the same size as the previous five years’ declines combined, city data shows.

“Given the current circumstances of pandemic it is no surprise that we are seeing greater fluctuations in enrollment this year,” said Education Department spokeswoman Katie O’Hanlon.

Roughly a quarter of the enrollment decline — 10,000 students — came in the city’s sprawling 3-k and pre-k system for three- and four-year-olds, which enrolled nearly 80,000 students last year.

Education Department officials speculated that, since preschool enrollment isn’t required by law, “families may be trying to limit travel and socially distance” by keeping their kids home.

Kindergarten enrollment also dropped steeply, though officials said enrollment decline in the first, second, and third grades was in line with trends from previous years.

Middle school enrollment dropped slightly more this year than last year, while the high school enrollment decline was less than the a year before.

Some families have transferred students to private, parochial or charter schools, but those figures weren’t immediately available.

The dip in enrollment can also mean a hit to schools’ budgets, which are allocated based on student registration.

Schools are funded at the beginning of the school year based on projected enrollment. If the actual enrollment is higher than expected, they get additional city funds, but if it’s lower, they’re expected to return the difference from their budgets.

Some schools — facing larger-than-normal enrollment drops alongside additional staffing expenses from operating in-person and remote instruction — have argued their budgets should be “held harmless” this school year.

Parents at Brooklyn’s P.S. 9, which is expected to chop roughly $250,000 from its expected budget because enrollment is about 60 students lower than projected, said losing a quarter of a million dollars in the middle of an already-challenging school year is “unconscionable.”

“The repayment of this funding now or in the next budget year would force PS9 to cut teacher positions and programs, and tap into funding for enrichment and intervention programs that are absolutely critical to students,” wrote PTA presidents Jessica Flores and Ellen Bolotin in a letter to Mayor de Blasio.

Education Department officials insisted the mandatory giveback is not a cut, but “right-sizing” of budgets that happens every year, saying many schools factor the mid-year budget change into their plans from the beginning of the year.

The DOE’s central office has also allocated additional funds for hiring substitutes and other staffers, officials said.

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Mamie M. Arndt