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With 1.9 Percent Enrollment Drop, NYC Schools Have Lost 64,000 Students Since Pandemic Started

Desks were placed at a distance from each other in the cafeteria of a Bronx middle and high school. Christina Veiga / Chalkbeat

Enrollment in the nation’s largest school system has dropped roughly 1.9 percent this school year, according to preliminary figures released Friday by the education department.

Roughly 938,000 students are enrolled in New York City’s public schools, down from about 955,000 last school year, when the system saw a significant decline related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Declining birth rates are playing a role, a department spokesperson said. Some families have left the five boroughs, opted for charter schools, private schools, or home school, though officials did not provide data that reveals to what extent those factors may be affecting the enrollment shift.

The city’s public schools have been shedding students well before the pandemic. The decline last school year was much more significant, though, with enrollment dropping by 4.7 percent.

Overall, the city’s district schools now have 6.4 percent, or about 64,000, fewer students compared with the 2019-2020 school year, when the pandemic started.

Charter school enrollment has increased 3.2 percent this school year and now stands at 143,000, or roughly 13 percent of the city’s public school students. Though the cap on the number of charter schools that can open in New York City has been reached, schools may still phase in additional grade levels that have already been approved.

Enrollment trends matter considerably at the school level because the majority of school budgets are allocated on a per-student basis. If a school enrolls fewer students than the city projected, they may be forced to hand funding back, a practice that generated outsized criticism last school year, as some schools owed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

City officials wound up allowing schools to keep the funding they owed, and that policy will continue this school year, officials said.

School systems across the country have also experienced enrollment declines this year, including nearly 6 percent in Los Angeles and 3 percent in Chicago, the nation’s second and third largest districts.

“​​As the nation’s largest school district we’ve been impacted by the nationwide enrollment fluctuation that impacted schools across the country, and this data shows enrollment is stabilizing as we continue our City’s incredible recovery,” education department spokesperson Katie O’Hanlon said in a statement.

Fewer kids are back in school than in recent years past. New York City Mayors Office

Last school year, the largest enrollment drops were among the city’s youngest learners, echoing trends in districts across the country, as some families may have been reluctant to rely on virtual learning for young children or were nervous about sending their unvaccinated children to school in the midst of a pandemic.

This year, enrollment in pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds held steady, but is still below pre-pandemic levels, department officials indicated at a City Council hearing this week.

With an influx of federal dollars, city officials have expanded its pre-K offerings for 3-year-olds leading to an overall preschool increase of roughly 28 percent. In kindergarten, the year education becomes compulsory, enrollment fell 9 percent last year. Officials did not immediately provide a grade-by-grade breakdown for the latest data.

For weeks, elected officials have been pressing the education department for enrollment figures and a clear accounting of how many students are not regularly showing up to school.

Parents are now required to send their children to school in person, but some have resisted, citing the ongoing pandemic and skepticism of the city’s safety protocols in schools.

The numbers released Friday do not offer a precise indication of how many students have disengaged from school, or are chronically absent, even as they continue to live in the city. Officials said average daily attendance to date stands at 89 percent, though they did not immediately say how that compares to the same period in prior years.

Although individual school budgets will not take a hit if their enrollment shrinks, a significant drop-off can eventually pose a threat since district officials have closed schools that they conclude are too small to be sustainable.

At the district level, enrollment declines could affect funding levels, though the department’s budget has grown even as the number of students enrolled in district schools has shrunk.

And the immediate budget outlook is far rosier than many predicted when the pandemic hit: The city is flush with nearly $7 billion in federal coronavirus relief dollars and state officials have also pledged to boost funding for schools.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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