Public Schools

Will the decline in public school enrollment be reversed after the pandemic?

Written by Mamie M. Arndt

YES

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Lisa Guisbond

Executive Director of Citizens for Public Schools; President of the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance; Brookline resident

Public school enrollment will rebound after the pandemic, and in order for our communities to recover and thrive, it’s essential that it does. A small but significant group of families have fled public schooling during the pandemic, but they will return, particularly if the state keeps its pre-COVID promise to adequately and equitably fund schools.

The pandemic has taught us just how essential public schools are, and for much more than education. When schools shuttered, many parents were unable to go to work because they had to care for their children at home. Many low-income children lost access to their regular school nutrition. Students missed their friends and teachers, and schools could no longer provide in-person social-emotional support to help students deal with the trauma of the pandemic.

COVID has been a profound, painful lesson in how interconnected we are, and public schools are one of the key institutions connecting us.

It’s no surprise that desperate parents with means have sought alternatives to shuttered public schools. That’s true in Brookline, where enrollment fell 11.4 percent. Statewide, enrollment dropped 3.9 percent.

Parents have left for many reasons. Some parents preferred to homeschool their kids rather than enroll them in a virtual classroom, but will be happy to return to in-person schooling when it’s safe.

Other families chose to temporarily send their children to private or parochial schools that had the financial resources to reopen safely. In contrast, many under-resourced public school districts lack the resources to fulfill basic educational needs, let alone ventilation upgrades, sufficient personal protective equipment, and more. Once public schools are safely reopened, these families will return as well.

Even before COVID, state legislators and the governor recognized the need to dramatically increase public school funding. The 2019 Student Opportunity Act promised to increase annual funding by $1.5 billion, phased in over seven years. But COVID intervened and the state has fallen short of the law’s promised new revenues this year.

We need our public schools, which will rebound when they’re able to reopen safely. But the state must ensure schools are equitably funded and meet the needs of our students in the pandemic’s wake.

NO

Bill Heuer

Director, Massachusetts Home Learning Association; Sherborn resident

A year ago, there were about two million homeschoolers across the United States. By March, due to school shutdowns, another 50 million students were effectively thrust into a version of “school at home” when they were forced to do their learning remotely due to COVID-19.

It is important to realize that homeschooling is not the same as the online learning necessitated by the pandemic. Homeschoolers, whose educational plan needs to be approved by their local school district, customarily spend a relatively limited time “at home” as they utilize libraries, museums, co-ops, historical sites, parks, and other venues for their learning.

By all accounts, homeschooling has been on the rise this year. Throughout the summer and fall, our Massachusetts Home Learning Association website and related Facebook groups were overwhelmed with thousands of new members. The National Home Education Research Institute estimates homeschooling nationwide has increased by 10 percent or more.

Public schools’ use of remote/hybrid reopening models resulted in precipitous declines in enrollment as parents chose homeschooling and other preferences such as private and parochial schools.

Public school enrollment has been flat or falling for several years. This year’s decline obscures the fact that student numbers actually rose for vocational schools, charter schools, and even the state’s two public virtual schools, all of which are included in the public enrollment numbers. The underlying trend is that parents are looking for viable choices, the best fit for their child’s learning style, and an escape from a “one-size fits all” educational environment.

Just as COVID-19 accelerated the use of online shopping at the expense of “brick and mortar” retail stores, “brick and mortar” public schools are experiencing an analogous reaction as families search for other options that better meet their children’s educational needs. Inevitably post-pandemic shoppers will return to retail stores, and some families will return to the public schools when in-person instruction resumes.

But many families that have experienced freedom from traditional schooling will continue to use and thrive with their resource-rich models of homeschooling and other learning alternatives as they realize that “school” and “education” are not synonymous. Public schools may bounce back, but not to pre-pandemic levels.

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact [email protected].

This is not a scientific survey. Please only vote once.

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About the author

Mamie M. Arndt