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Stanford study reveals how public schools’ reopening decisions during the pandemic influenced a drop in enrollment

Picture of school closed sign

Stanford study reveals how public schools’ reopening decisions during the pandemic influenced a drop in enrollment

Research led by Stanford education professor Thomas S. Dee examines the impact of school policies to go remote or in-person in 2020-21.

Public schools nationwide saw a major drop in student enrollment during the pandemic last year, with many families switching to private schools where classes were still held in person, taking up homeschooling or – especially those with kindergartners – just skipping a formal school year entirely.

According to newly collected data from a collaboration between Stanford researchers and the New York Times, public K-12 schools in the United States experienced a loss of roughly 1.1 million students in the fall of 2020 – and districts that began the school year with remote-only schooling had significantly larger enrollment declines than those that offered face-to-face schooling.

In a new study, researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE) and Big Local News, a project of the Stanford Computational Journalism Lab, examine the extent to which the enrollment decline was influenced by school districts’ decisions to hold classes in person or go remote. 

The team at Stanford worked with journalists at the New York Times on a major report published Aug. 7, which analyzed the enrollment drop at 70,000 public schools across the United States. EdSource, a nonprofit media organization covering education in California, and the nonprofit Colorado News Collaborative (COLab) also participated in the project.

Here, study coauthor Thomas S. Dee, the Barnett Family Professor at the GSE and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, shares more about how the collaboration came about, what the team discovered and why the findings are important as districts prepare for the beginning of a new school year. 

How did you get involved in this project? 

It was very serendipitous – I actually met Cheryl Phillips, who directs Big Local News, at our local dog meet-up. She lives around the corner from me and our dogs, Isabel and Tank, were getting along with each other, so we just started talking. She said something like, ‘I do data journalism,’ and I said, ‘I do data.’ I mentioned a paper I was working on with some very early data on school enrollment declines, and she came back to me a couple of months later, saying she’d been talking to the New York Times and other reporters about doing something really ambitious on this issue. 

So my doctoral advisee Elizabeth Huffaker and I got involved, thinking initially that we’d just have more comprehensive data to do a descriptive look at disenrollment. Federal data on school enrollment typically lags far behind the state-level data, so we all scoured state websites and reached out to state officials to get the data they report to the feds.

Then we realized that a private company called Burbio was tracking data on school reopening plans for a sample of school districts. The company generously shared those data, and we put it together with the disenrollment data we’d collected from the states. 

Thomas S. Dee
Professor Thomas S. Dee

In a nutshell, what did you find? 

We examined a large sample of K-12 school districts over six years, from fall 2015 through fall 2020. Public school enrollment typically increases from year to year, but it fell sharply in the fall of 2020, and we found that districts that adopted remote-only schooling had significantly larger enrollment declines than those that offered face-to-face schooling. 

All of the districts experienced declines last year; even those in our sample that were face-to-face saw a 2.6 percent enrollment decline. But those that chose remote-only had a 3.7 percent decline. In other words, going remote-only actually increased the enrollment decline by about 40 percent. The decline was particularly sharp in kindergarten.

Were you surprised? 

I went into this genuinely uncertain about what we would see, because I just know from my own position as a parent, I was conflicted about keeping my kids home in front of a computer or sending them into a classroom where they might get sick or bring the virus home. 

The enrollment declines attributable to schools going remote-only were also particularly large in rural areas, which is a little enigmatic to me. To the extent that parents were turning to other schooling options, my supposition is that there are fewer of these options in more rural areas. So there’s still a lot to be learned about this. For example, access to high-speed broadband and digital devices may influence how parents in rural communities judged the appeal of remote instruction.

What would you want school leaders to take from your findings? 

I don’t want to plant a flag on whether or not they made the right decision last year about going remote or in person. From a policy perspective, schools were really caught between a rock and a hard place: There were serious concerns about developmental harm with kids not being face to face, and at the same time, concerns about creating a vector for COVID transmission by bringing them back. Unfortunately, with many communities experiencing low vaccination rates and the spread of COVID variants, it appears we are confronting the same trade-offs once again.

But I think this study has at least three important implications for school leaders. One is that our results provide objective evidence on the character of parents’ preferences – specifically that some parents, particularly those with the youngest children, held the offer of remote instruction in such disdain that they were willing to go so far as to disenroll. 

Second, these results provide leading indicators of the teaching and learning challenges educators will face in the wake of the pandemic. The exact character of those challenges will turn on what disenrolled students experienced last year and where they go this fall. For example, children who skipped kindergarten last year and enter first grade this fall will have their first experience with more formal schooling and may present different “readiness to learn” profiles to their teachers. Alternatively, if the children who skipped kindergarten “redshirt” into kindergarten this year, their teachers may confront unusually large class sizes and a more mixed group of older and younger students. Meanwhile some older children are navigating the educational consequences of switching schools or even sustained truancy.  

Third, these results also suggest an imminent fiscal challenge to public schools if student enrollment doesn’t rebound. My best guess is that many of these students aren’t returning. As parents confront the uncertainty of the coming school year and what their local public schools will offer, they may view their new accommodations as a safe harbor. Because the students who disenrolled are disproportionately younger, this effect may be long-lasting. These are all areas where we should direct continued attention as new data become available.

The study was authored by Thomas S. Dee, the Barnett Family Professor at the GSE and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research; GSE doctoral student Elizabeth Huffaker; Stanford lecturer Cheryl Phillips, director of Big Local News (which partners with newsrooms on investigative projects and provides a platform for journalists to share and analyze data); and Eric Sagara, senior data journalist at Big Local News.

Faculty mentioned in this article: Thomas S. Dee

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