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Public school enrollment down statewide and in Boston during pandemic.

By Peter Ciurczak, Boston Indicators and Tyler Smith, Boston Schools Fund

December 4, 2020

Among the most unfortunate side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the prolonged disruption to student learning. Most K-12 schools were closed for portions of the spring and many started the current school year later than usual in mid to late September. Even today, many schools operate fully or partially remote. Amidst this turmoil, a troubling number of families have opted out of the public school system for the 2020-2021 school year. Declines are heavily concentrated in the earliest grades, although Boston also saw a large decline for students starting high school. Some families are clearly concerned about the spread of the virus, while others are likely responding to frustration about the quality of public school reopening plans.

In this brief we walk through some topline analyses of these enrollment trends, mostly comparing School Year 2019-2020 (SY 2020) with School Year 2020-2021 (SY 2021). In Part I, we look at total public school enrollment statewide, showing that after several years of relative stability, enrollment dropped by more than 37,000 students this year (or -4 percent). In Part II we turn to trends within Boston Public Schools, finding a one-year decline of 2,368 students (or -4.7 percent), which compounds a multi-decade enrollment decline that preceded it.


School year 2021 enrollment declines were concentrated in the earliest grades, with more than 17,000 fewer students in prekindergarten and kindergarten alone, almost half the state’s total enrollment decline. Public school is not mandatory for kids under six years of age, so it’s possible that some of these families have chosen to keep kids at home temporarily during the pandemic. Enrollment declines taper off for the higher grades.

These enrollment declines ran across racial and ethnic lines but were most pronounced among White students statewide. Black and Latinx enrollment also dropped by 2.9 and 2.6 percent respectively.

Economically Disadvantaged students—those living in lower-income families that are enrolled in an income-based public support program like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—are the one high-needs student group to have actually seen an increase in enrollment this year (up 7.4 percent). This increase may be driven in part by a shift in the number of families qualifying as Economically Disadvantaged due to the current economic crisis.

While a few, relatively small districts gained enrollment from last year, the vast majority all experienced decreases, as shown in the interactive map below.

The largest districts in Massachusetts have total enrollment declines that are similar to the statewide average. And when looking at prekindergarten and kindergarten enrollment, these declines are also significant. Lawrence and Worcester stand out, with losses of around 24 percent in these early grades. Notably, Brockton has had much smaller enrollment declines than its peers, losing just 1 percent in these youngest grades and 4 percent overall.


For Boston, the one-year enrollment decline precipitated by the pandemic compounds a multi-decade enrollment decline that preceded it. As Boston Indicators detailed in Kids Today earlier this year, Boston Public Schools (BPS) saw a loss of around 33,000 students from 1980 to 2019, even as the city’s population increased by over 100,000. As shown in the graph below, this year’s loss of about 2,400 students represents an acceleration of more recent enrollment declines from 2015 – and longer-term declines from the 84,758 students attending BPS in 1980.

For Boston, declines in prekindergarten (-12.9 percent) were less severe than in the state overall (-30.8 percent), but, interestingly, Boston had a much larger decline for those entering high school (-15.1 percent for 9th graders in Boston versus -3.2 percent for the state).

In contrast to the statewide story where White enrollment declined more, Boston enrollment declined significantly more for students of color, with Black enrollment down 6.9 percent, Latinx enrollment down 4.7 percent and Asian enrollment down 3.6 percent.

Among high-needs populations, the largest decline by far was among middle- and upper-income families (“Non-Economically Disadvantaged”) and English Language Learners. By contrast, even as the district lost 2,368 students, the number of Economically Disadvantaged students actually increased by 881 students.

Just as enrollment declines in Boston’s student body have cut across many demographic subgroups, so too have these declines cut across neighborhoods. The greatest percentage change in enrollment have been in schools in Allston/Brighton and Charlestown, while the greatest absolute enrollment decline was in Roxbury. Exam schools, by contrast, have shown a small increase in enrollment despite the system’s overall decline.

Finally, these enrollment declines impact Boston’s BuildBPS program. The program was developed in 2016 to guide the renovation of Boston’s school buildings and to meet projected enrollment gains of 2,515 students per year through 2026. While enrollment in the immediate years following the BuildBPS projection were less than expected, 2020-2021 numbers are even lower, making long-term planning as in BuildBPS even more challenging.

No doubt there are many causes of these one-year enrollment declines, and it’s hard to tease out which are most responsible for these changes. Nonetheless, here are a few thoughts on some likely factors:

  • As public schools were slow to reopen, many parents moved their children private schools that were offering in-person options. In July, the Archdiocese of Boston – including Catholic schools across Greater Boston – was projecting enrollment of just under 27,000 students for SY 2021. This fall, however, the incoming class grew by an additional 4,300 students, with a large influx of students believed to be from public school districts. Likewise, other private schools with in-person learning may have seen a similar increase in enrollment statewide, though finer details about enrollment in Boston’s private non-parochial schools is not currently available.
  • Parents are turning to homeschooling or are delaying kindergarten enrollment. Just over 7,000 students have withdrawn from public school for homeschooling, up from 802 students in SY 2020. Additionally, more parents may simply be keeping their younger kids back a year, and plan to enroll their child in kindergarten once the pandemic has passed.
  • Parents are moving their children to charters and vocational schools. In Boston, charters were the only schools in the city to not lose enrollment during the pandemic, growing by 480 students between SY 2020 and SY 2021. Across the state, charter enrollment grew by an additional 798 students, and regional vocational schools by 530 students.
  • Fewer families with children may be living in Massachusetts this year. At the start of the decade, Massachusetts had around 726,000 households with children under 18 years old – by 2019, Massachusetts has just 668,000 families with children under 18. This means the pandemic has compounded an existing decline in the overall number of children, a topic Boston Indicators covered in more detail in Kids Today. Likewise, the pandemic has put a halt to international migration, which in the past brought many families with young children to the region for work in Boston’s universities and hospitals.
  • Ultimately, these are early numbers. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released these enrollment numbers on a heavily accelerated schedule. It’s likely that some number of students across the state may be mis- or double-counted. As DESE further refines these numbers, we should expect at least some enrollment adjustments across the state’s public school systems.

Read more briefs from the COVID Community Data Lab