Commentary on Covid mandates and learning loss

Douglas Harris

Contrary to popular belief, COVID-19 has only caused a 2% drop in public school enrollments nationally. Some of the latest evidence also suggests no drop at all in cities like Detroit and New York City that were heavily criticized for staying remote so long. By comparison, there was a 15% decline during the mid-1970s-1980s without a pandemic (due mainly to demographic shifts). That’s a real seismic shift—seven times larger than the COVID-19 drop.

Projected enrollments will likely drop by more than two percent in the coming years due to declining birth rates and immigration. Looking at the trend line in district enrollments ten years from now, we may barely notice the COVID-19 years.

In fact, what’s most remarkable is how little COVID-19 altered public school enrollments. Every child in the country was forced out of their school buildings for a time. Parents became more familiar and experienced with the many online tools that allow students to learn from home, and some shopped around for alternatives. If ever there was a chance to reconsider, this was it. Yet, the best analyses suggest only 372,000 students switched to homeschooling or private schools—out of 50 million nationally.

Critics might argue that few switched schools due to a lack of good alternatives, but polls show high satisfaction with public schools during the pandemic. One poll showed 78% of families were satisfied with how public schools handled the pandemic; in another, the figure was 80%.

No, the public school enrollment drop was not seismic. The real concern ought to be that some students might have left, never to return to any form of schooling.