In-Depth: Public school enrollment plummets during pandemic

State officials are hopeful numbers will rebound
Many kids are heading back to the classroom
Posted at 6:36 PM, Aug 26, 2021

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- While enrollment dropped significantly as the pandemic raged on through California, state education officials believe numbers will bounce back.

Schools closed throughout California in March 2020, leaving families with limited in-person options. Students went from the classroom to learning at home.

It was difficult for many, as Governor Gavin Newsom declared in December that there’s “no substitute” for in-person learning.

While most kids have returned on campus, enrollment is still not back to pre-pandemic levels.

According to data from the California Department of Education, public education enrollment has been on a steady decline over the past several years. More than 160,000 students left public school from the 2019 school year to last year. That is roughly a 2.6 percent drop, one of the biggest in more than two decades.

Enrollment from 1995-1996 to 2020-2021 (Source: CA Dept. of Education)

Multiple factors may have played a role, including students switching out of public school and some disadvantaged students getting lost during this pandemic.

One report by SchoolHouse Connection and the University of Michigan showed roughly 420,000 fewer children experiencing homelessness have been identified and enrolled in schools despite evidence that homelessness is increasing. SchoolHouse Connection Executive Director Barbara Duffield told me she is worried some of those kids dropped out of school completely.

Team 10 looked at several local districts, including San Diego, Poway, Cajon Valley, Sweetwater, and Chula Vista Elementary. Each of those districts lost students between the 2019 and 2020 school year.

That decline continues into this school year, although it is smaller compared to the loss from 2019 to 2020.


Although the enrollment numbers have not been finalized for this school year, preliminary data shows the Poway Unified School District lost less than 0.25 percent of its population this year compared to the 2020 school year. The districts in the South Bay had a greater percentage loss, with early data showing that the Chula Vista Elementary School District suffered a more than 2 percent loss in students. The Sweetwater Union High School District saw a decrease in enrollment of about 1.7 percent.

San Diego Unified School District did not provide any preliminary enrollment numbers for the 2021-2022 school year. However, the district suffered a huge loss of students from 2019 to 2020—more than 4 percent.

The school districts are offering virtual learning options for students who are not ready to come back on campus.

Numbers from the California Department of Education show the biggest drop in enrollment during the pandemic was in kindergarten. California lost nearly 61,000 kindergartners from year to year during the pandemic.

“While declining enrollment is alarming because we are so passionate about early childhood education, we also know that you need to make your decision that's best for your family,” said Gennie Gorback, the president of the California Kindergarten Association. The organization is a non-profit which advocates for “high quality, developmentally appropriate early childhood education.”

Gorback said part of the huge decline in enrollment was likely because kindergarten is not required in California.

“Truancy doesn't start until age six, which is first grade. [That] means if people feel like their children are unsafe in kindergarten, there's no legal ramifications for them to pull them out,” Gorback said.

The organization advocates for mandatory and full day kindergarten.

While many public schools saw a decline, charter school enrollment rose statewide.

In San Diego, private schools also saw an increase. A spokesman with the Diocese of San Diego said they are expecting a three to five percent increase over last year. He added that many schools could have taken more students, but social distancing requirements limited them.

The state believes enrollment will increase with many schools back to in-person learning. A spokesperson said they are seeing more than 95 percent of public school students returning. Official statewide data on enrollment will be available in the spring.