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Statewide enrollment declines have leveled out two years into the pandemic, but in Boston declines continue.

By Peter Ciurczak, Boston Indicators, and Matt Hieronimus, Boston Schools Fund

December 2, 2021

Every kid in Massachusetts deserves a safe, supportive, high-quality public education. But the pandemic has made living up to these promises more challenging than ever. Prolonged remote and hybrid learning during the last school year led many families to find other options for educating their kids, as we detailed in in a similar research brief last year. Fortunately, for the current school year, most classrooms are open for in-person learning, and most school-aged kids are now eligible to be vaccinated. But challenges obviously remain. In this research brief, we analyze newly released data for the current school year (SY 2022), looking at which schools and districts saw enrollment rebounds during this second full year of schooling during the pandemic.

The brief is organized into two parts: statewide trends and Boston Public Schools trends. Topline findings include:

  1. While declines leveled off this year, public school enrollment in Massachusetts remains about 4 percent below pre-pandemic levels.
  2. Enrollment in Boston, however, has continued to decline. Boston Public School's enrollment is now 9 percent below pre-pandemic levels. This two-year decline has served to accelerate a trend of declining enrollment that predated the pandemic.
  3. Economic hardship during the pandemic has led to a significant increase in students considered low-income (although a portion of the increase is likely due to DESE measurement changes).  
  4. Enrollment declines have been sharpest in the state’s larger urban districts. Enrollment rebounds during SY 2022 have been scattered across smaller, suburban districts.

Part 1: Statewide Enrollment Trends 

Enrollment in Massachusetts schools fell by about 4 percent during the first full year of the pandemic (School Year 2021 versus School Year 2020), as shown in the graph below. While there was some reason to think we might experience a rebound for School Year 2022 (SY 2022), enrollment instead leveled off.

Pre-kindergarten and kindergarten have seen some of the largest enrollment swings across the pandemic. In SY 2021, many families of young kids continued home or private childcare arrangements, leading pre-kindergarten enrollment to drop by almost a third (31 percent) compared to SY 2020. Kindergarten enrollment dropped by 12 percent for SY 2021. A year later, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten enrollment did experience large rebounds, up 31 percent and 8 percent respectively for SY 2022. Nevertheless, looking across the last two school years, these two grades remain 9 and 4 percent below pre-pandemic levels.

Other grades have experienced smaller swings, with most of them down 5 to 10 percent from pre-pandemic levels. Interestingly, high school grades have seen smaller enrollment declines of just 0.1 to 3 percent. It is possible that remote and hybrid learning was less disruptive for these older students, making parents less likely to pull their children and send them to private or parochial schools.

The searchable table below displays these enrollment trends for every public district in the state. In SY 2021, three-quarters of Massachusetts districts saw enrollment losses. With many students now having access to vaccines, and masks mandated across the state’s school systems, enrollment in SY 2022 increased in just over half of the state’s districts.

Looking more closely at the state’s largest districts—those educating more than 10,000 students—reveals some of the most significant enrollment declines. Boston’s enrollment declined the most, with a decrease of 8.5 percent across the entire pandemic (which we describe more in Part 2), followed by Newton which is down 6.3 percent from SY 2020. Only Lynn saw enrollment gains from SY 2021 to SY 2022, though those gains were insufficient to overcome the losses in the first pandemic school year.

Next, we turn to enrollment trends by student subgroup, finding that the most significant changes have been among low-income students. Across the state, students who are counted as low-income increased by 28.4 percent between SY 2020 and SY 2022. As economic hardship spiked early in the pandemic, so did demand for key social assistance programs. New applications for the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP), for instance, increased 42 percent between January 2020 and January 2021. Through the relatively new Direct Certification process for school meals, increases in these social assistance programs have been leading in turn to increases in the number of students identified by the state as “low-income.” It’s also important to note that the state has been making changes to how it measures which students are low-income, and these shifts likely play an additional role in explaining some of this reported increase over the last two years. These two groups of students – the newly low-income due to circumstance, and the smaller group of students who are newly low-income due to definitional change both contribute to the increase in low-income students statewide.

This increase in low-income student enrollment is not distributed evenly across the state. The map below plots these changes by district, showing that districts where parents may be more able to work from home and maintain their employment—places like Weston, Lexington, Sudbury and many other towns in yellow--have seen some of the smallest increases in low-income populations. By contrast, some of the Mystic valley towns and cities—like Malden, Chelsea and Revere—have low-income populations that are more than 19 percentage points greater than they were in SY 2020. These and other Gateway Cities were some of the hardest hit municipalities across the pandemic, and nearly all have low-income student population increases of greater than 10 percentage points. As more families fall into the ranks of low-income status, the children they send to school are likely in need of more services, making the change substantial for any district. With new funds available through the Student Opportunity Act and COVID relief programs, there is hope that some of these challenges may be eased.

When breaking out by race we see a more varied story. White student enrollment has dropped 7.6 percent over the two pandemic years. Black student enrollment is down 2.9 percent. And Asian student enrollment is down 2.6 percent.

Despite a small decrease through SY 2021, Latino student enrollment rebounded for this current year, ultimately growing by 2.7 percent across the last two years. Though still smaller than other racial groups in absolute terms, the largest growth across the pandemic was in fact in the “Other” group, which grew by 5.2 percent. Largely made up of multiracial, non-Latino students (more than 90 percent of the total), the increasing size of this group speaks to the growing multiracial population of Massachusetts, and Greater Boston specifically.

Another useful way to analyze these trends is by type of school, including private schools and homeschooling. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education tracks this data as well, but makes it available toward the end of each school year, rather than in November, meaning that we unfortunately only have data through last year. What this data shows is that the largest losses during the first year of the pandemic were concentrated in the state’s local public school districts. By contrast, the number of homeschooled students increased by over 9,000, followed by a nearly 4,000 student increase in enrollment for vocational technical schools and a 1,800 student increase in Commonwealth charter school enrollment.

Part 2: Boston Public School Enrollment Trends

Boston Public Schools (BPS) experienced an enrollment decline of more than 2,000 students this year for a total decline of just over 4,500 across the pandemic. This change is not encouraging when placed against state enrollment, which remained flat compared to last year. Comparing enrollment from before the pandemic, BPS is down 8.5 percent while the state declines were less than half of that, at 3.9 percent.

Further, BPS declines during the pandemic come on the heels of several years of declines leading up to it. BPS enrollment is down over 8,000 students, or 14 percent since SY 2015.

Reviewing enrollment by grade for BPS, pre-kindergarten (3.5 percent) and 9th grade (2.8 percent) were the only grades that saw a notable enrollment rebound for SY 2022. The 9th grade enrollment increase was close to the state’s 3.2 percent increase, though the pre-kindergarten increase lagged far behind the state’s increase of 30.9 percent. All told, enrollment in most grades across BPS schools has fallen anywhere from 5 to 15 percent over the last two years.

Interestingly, enrollment for students of color continued to decline in Boston this year, but across the state enrollment of Black and Asian students leveled off. Further, though still down from the previous year, Latino enrollment in Boston declined in SY 2022 but at a much lower rate than seen in SY 2021. This slowing enrollment decline among Latino students reflects a trend that began before the pandemic - of larger groups of Latino students entering public schools than other subpopulations. Finally, Asian and White student enrollment saw increasing declines year-over-year, though the largest percent decline was in the Black student population at 11.4 percent below SY 2020. All told, Black students made up 41 percent of the total district enrollment decline.

This year, Boston saw an 8.4 percent increase in the number of low-income students, for a total increase of 12.1 percent across the pandemic. Though the number of English Language Learner (ELL) students remained steady in SY 2022 as compared to SY 2021, the whole of the pandemic tells a different story. The ELL population is 14.1 percent smaller than it was in SY20, for a decline of 2,397 students.

As shown below, Boston’s enrollment decline is also spread across most of the city’s neighborhoods. Every neighborhood, except Hyde Park, experienced an enrollment decline this year, the largest one-year declines occurring in schools in South Boston (-10.4 percent) and the South End (-8.8 percent). Across the pandemic, the greatest decline in the number of students occurred in Roxbury and Allston/Brighton. Schools in South Boston have experienced the largest percentage decline (-15.7 percent) over the past two years.

Ultimately, over two-thirds of Boston’s public schools saw enrollment declines across the pandemic. Unlike traditional district schools, three-quarters of Commonwealth charters in the city grew—led by Boston Preparatory Charter Public School in Hyde Park. Boston Prep grew by 115 students, as can be seen in the table below.

Finally, the table below shows actual enrollment compared with enrollment projections in BuildBPS. Developed in 2016, BuildBPS projected a K2–12 enrollment increase of 1.8 percent by SY 2022. Instead, enrollment has decreased 14 percent overall since SY 2016, and compared to BuildBPS projections, actual K2–12 enrollment in SY 2022 is down 21 percent, with grades K2–5 missing their projections the most, at -25 percent.

While overall declines have leveled out in statewide enrollment, Boston and other large districts continue to see significant drops from their SY 2020 enrollment levels. In municipalities where jobs were especially vulnerable to pandemic losses, we've seen increases in the number of students who are now counted as low-income. Even as SY 2022 helped stabilize enrollment in some districts, COVID remains a problem for Massachusetts schools, and further enrollment volatility cannot be ruled out.

Read more briefs from the COVID Community Data Lab