Written by William Taylor Potter, Lafayette Daily Advertiser
Louisiana’s public school enrollment has dropped significantly since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and thousands of students may have fallen out of the education system entirely, an analysis from The Associated Press and Stanford University’s Big Local News project shows.
Enrollment at public schools plummeted nationwide during the pandemic, losing around 1.2 million students between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2021 — about 2.5% of the entire K-12 public school population.
Louisiana traditional public and charter schools lost 30,000 students since COVID
In Louisiana, traditional public and public charter schools have seen enrollment fall by around 31,000 since February 2020, a decline of about 4.3%. While many of these students may have moved to other areas, enrolled in private schools or switched to homeschooling, an estimated 19,166 students who left public schools can’t be accounted for, according to the project.
Hundreds of thousands of students missing nationwide
The AP and Big Local News collaboration looked at 21 states and Washington, D.C., that were able to provide adequate data on public school, private school and homeschool enrollment. Many states indicated they did not verify nonpublic school data.
For those states with complete data, the AP and Bog Local News calculated the change in public, private and homeschool enrollment from fall 2019 to fall 2021, plus the change in school-age population with U.S. Census data.
If all the students that left public schools enrolled in private schools or switched to homeschooling, the change would be zero. But instead, more than 240,000 students were unaccounted for in those 21 states and Washington, D.C. Because of the missing data in other states, that number could be higher.
“We knew virtually nothing before this work about where these kids have gone,” said Thomas Dees, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education.
The missing students accounted for around 34% of the 710,000 students who left public school in those states, which includes Louisiana. Around 26% switched to homeschooling, 14% went to private schools, and 26% of the change was explained by population loss.
“When students miss school or undergo disruptive school switches under duress, that can be particularly harmful to their development trajectories,” Dees said. “The enrollment data are telling us that it occurred.”
How does Louisiana compare?
Louisiana had the third-most missing students of all states, but the AP and Big Local News said that Louisiana’s data is a little difficult to interpret. Louisiana has a designation for private schools that are not seeking state approval and do not give a state-recognized diploma, so it’s difficult to tell how many students may be enrolled in programs like that.
Over the last few years, the Louisiana Department of Education has taken steps to improve attendance and to reconnect with students who have become disconnected from the educational system. Part of the plan includes bringing back an attendance position at LDOE that had been dormant for 10 years.
“This professional coordinates attendance and truancy efforts with child welfare and attendance officers and school systems across Louisiana,” LDOE said in a statement. “We have also gathered stakeholders such as district attorneys, juvenile judges, and school employees to collaborate on challenges and opportunities with attendance and truancy.”
The state is also working to make clearer definitions and tracking mechanisms for attendance and truancy.
One of the areas some states saw the most issues were in kindergarten enrollment, particularly for states where attendance is not required. Louisiana passed a law in 2021 to make kindergarten mandatory. LDOE said in a statement that the local systems handle kindergarten enrollment.
“Engaging families of young children is an issue our local school systems are in the best position to handle,” the department said.