Public school enrollment across Massachusetts dropped by nearly 4 percent this fall, a significant decrease that largely reflects a wave of families who have pulled their children out of public schools, frustrated that classrooms remain closed because of the pandemic, state officials announced Tuesday.
Overall, the state’s 400 public school districts, which include charter and vocational schools, have lost more than 37,000 students from their rosters this fall, causing statewide enrollment to drop to 911,432, according to the data, which officials presented at a state education board meeting.
The decline is dramatic in a state where public school enrollment has been stagnant or declining by a few thousand students in recent years, according to state data and interviews with education advocates.
“I have not seen a statewide enrollment drop this big before, but on the other hand I have not seen a situation like this [pandemic] before,” said Glenn Koocher, who has served as executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees for more than two decades. “This situation is unique in so many ways. I suspect there are kids who are not going to school — they are at home, they can’t log in, and are in limbo.”
Jeffrey Riley, state education commissioner, sounded alarms during the meeting about the growing plight of public school students learning from home as many experience a deepening sense of isolation and deteriorating mental health, which he fears could worsen in the winter months if districts don’t return to classrooms or find ways to connect more intentionally with their students. He said he will present recommendations to the board next month to assist.
“I think some people have seen the very concerning data on emergency room visits, as they relate to mental health for our children, are skyrocketing,” he said. “This is a national emergency. It’s also being reflected here in Massachusetts. . . . We’re just seeing a huge spike in mental health issues that are taking place.”
The enrollment declines can lead to steep financial losses for local districts. Most state aid is doled out on a per-pupil basis, which could exacerbate tight finances in districts that lose a lot of students.
The steepest decline came in the lowest grades, as many families have opted to keep their children enrolled in private preschool programs even if it means delaying kindergarten for a year. Kindergarten enrollment decreased by nearly 12 percent and public prekindergarten enrollment is down 30 percent. Those two grade levels combined represent almost half of the overall enrollment decline statewide.
Cathy Knowlton of Princeton bypassed the Wachusett Regional School District and instead sent her daughter to a private kindergarten about a half-hour drive away because the local school system is conducting all learning online.
“She is thriving and she is learning,” said Knowlton. “It’s hard to believe she would have the same outcomes in a fully remote situation.”
The data confirm mounting anecdotal evidence in recent months that suggested families around the state have been bailing out of public schools over concerns that remote learning is lackluster and various reports indicating that private schools with classrooms open full time have experienced a spike in enrollment.
According to the data, some 13,166 students from public schools have transferred into private schools this fall, compared with 7,299 transfers the previous year. Many families are also giving home schooling a try this year, with 7,188 students withdrawing from public schools to receive instruction led and chosen by their parents or another adult, compared to 802 the previous year.
Whether the families will return to public schools is up for debate.
Laura Kelley, of Duxbury, has decided to keep her 6-year-old son at a private Montessori school, where he attends the first grade, rather than sending him back to the local school system.
“It has worked out perfectly and we will keep him there for the long term,” she said. “We are invested.”
Martin Zwierlein, of Belmont, said he is torn about what to do for next year because his son is doing well in the first grade at a private school.
“I would love for him to come back to the local school system — that is the main reason we chose to live in Belmont,” he said. “I’m struggling with the decision.”
The enrollment report follows months of pleas to local districts by Governor Charlie Baker to bring more students back into the classrooms. Currently, more than half of the state’s students are learning from home, while many of the other students are splitting their time between lessons in the classroom and home. Very few districts are open in person full time.
Baker and other state officials say that in-school transmission of COVID-19 has been rare in Massachusetts and that the risk of harm to students not attending school in person is significant both in terms of academic losses and the toll social isolation is taking on their mental health.
But teachers unions, other education advocates, and some parents remain concerned about safety.
“Despite COVID, children need to be in school as much as possible,” James Peyser, the state’s education secretary, said during the state board meeting prior to the presentation.“The deeper into the school year we get, the more clear it is that the quantity and quality of learning online is falling far short of what normally happens in a classroom.”
He added, “The bottom line is we need to redouble our efforts to reopen classrooms for in-person instruction, both now and as we prepare for the new year.”
Many urban and suburban districts alike have taken a huge hit on enrollment.
Across the Boston Public Schools and its in-district charter schools, where almost all students are learning from home, about 2,500 fewer students are enrolled this year compared with last year, resulting in an overall headcount of 50,690.
Newton lost 755 students, pushing enrollment down to 12,024. Brookline has 886 fewer students, with enrollment dropping to 6,891. And Somerville shed 248 students, with an overall headcount of 4,691.
A Boston school spokesman said that the district has seen fewer new students enroll this year than in previous years, but fewer students transferred out. The district’s own enrollment count is also slightly higher than the state’s tally.
The defection of families from public schools has thrown an unexpected lifeline of sorts to many struggling Catholic schools, which were facing an uncertain future earlier this year.
This spring, the Archdiocese of Boston was preparing for the loss of more than 5,700 students as families pulled their children out for financial reasons. But over the summer as public-school teachers unions successfully sought to delay the start of fall classes and pressured districts to keep classrooms closed, Catholic school enrollment rebounded, said Catholic schools Superintendent Thomas Carroll.
“Our phones across 100 Catholic schools lit up and didn’t stop until late October,” Carroll said, resulting in 4,300 new students. “The big draw for public school parents was we offered in-person instruction. Right now, only two schools out of our 100 don’t because of extraordinary neighborhood transmission rates.”
Overall enrollment at the archdiocese’s 100 schools stands at 31,153 students, a decrease of 1,400 from the previous year. That’s roughly in line with the declines the archdiocese has been grappling with for years.
Keeping classrooms open also didn’t jeopardize safety, said Carroll, noting the schools have had about 30 COVID-19 cases among 35,500 students, faculty, and staff.
James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.