Enrollment risk: Why students shouldn’t be forced to choose one way to learn

'Choosing in-person only or virtual-only could have implications for public school funding far into the future,' researcher says
By: | September 14, 2021

Districts risk losing students to homeschooling and private schools if they cannot offer families a flexible blend of in-person and virtual instruction post-COVID, a new University of Michigan study finds.

Public school enrollment dropped noticeably in fall 2020 while homeschooling rates and private school attendance surged, according to “The Pandemic’s Effect on Demand for Public Schools, Homeschooling, and Private Schools.”

“Those responsible for managing public school districts through this crisis need to be aware of the many and different expectations that parents may have,” said co-author Kevin Stange, an associate professor of public policy and a researcher with the university’s Education Policy Initiative. “Choosing in-person only or virtual-only could have implications for public school funding far into the future.”

Homeschooling increased more where schools provided in-person instruction, while in-person private school enrollment rose more where instruction was remote, the study found.

In February 2020, 4.5% of U.S. households with school-aged children reported that at least one child was homeschooled and that rate jumped to 7.3% by the following fall 2020.

In Michigan alone, K-12 enrollment dropped by 3%. Kindergarten enrollment fell by 10%, with the steepest decline—nearly 20%—among lower-income and Black students.

The study has three major policy implications:

  1. More outreach required: Not only did access to in-person vary by race and income, but families responded differently when provided the same options. This suggests administrators need to do more extensive outreach to encourage families to re-enroll in public schools.
  2. Long-run disruptions: Schools will experience fluctuations in cohort size and composition and overall funding. Administrators at the elementary level are already grappling with the initial consequences though the full impact of these hits won’t be clear for a few years.
  3. In-person policies: Families will remain more likely to move to homeschooling in places where state and local leaders have prohibited public districts from offering remote learning, particularly where the continuing delta variant surge is hitting hardest. However, families who don’t have access to in-person schooling are more likely to switch to a private school. These trends should inform decisions as officials weigh the costs and benefits of how public schools will deliver instruction.

You can read the full study for further details.

In-person uncertainty lingers

Parents remain concerned about the safety of in-person instruction, according to a RAND Corporation survey conducted during the delta outbreak earlier this summer.

However, a gap between white parents and Black and Hispanic parents in their preferences for in-person schooling has narrowed since this spring.

Parents whose children were under 12 years old, and thus too young to be vaccinated for COVID-19, were as likely to send them back to school in person as were parents with children over 12, the survey found.

Two-thirds or more of Black, Hispanic and Asian parents said they would feel safer sending kids to school based on the following practices: ventilation in classrooms, vaccinated teachers, social distancing, mandatory masking and regular COVID-19 testing.

COVID remained the top reason for parents keeping their children home, outranking academics, racial discrimination, bullying or concerns about schools teaching critical race theory.

“To feel safe sending their children to school in person, most parents—especially those still unsure about in-person schooling—want classroom ventilation, teachers to be vaccinated and social distancing in schools, in that order,” said Heather Schwartz, co-author of the report and director of the Pre-K to 12 educational systems program at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “School principals are the source that the greatest number of parents trust for information about school safety practices.”