An Unexpected School-Enrollment Churn?

By Brian Backstrom

As policymakers and school districts across New York try to figure out the smartest and safest way to get children back to learning in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, unanticipated and dramatic swings in student enrollment may throw yet another wrench into the works.

In New York State, K-12 enrollment in both public and private schools has decreased by 4 to 5 percent over the past five years. Still, total private school enrollment has stayed steady at around 14 percent of total enrollment in the state. In reaction to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, however, new choices by parents to switch where their children go to school and a rash of private school closures may upset that balance.


Thousands More Kids to Public Schools?

In early July 2020, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York announced that it would close 20 schools in New York City and its northern counties, six additional schools in Brooklyn and Queens, and merge three others into one because the COVID-19 outbreak caused dramatically lower donations from parishioners and decreased student enrollment. Only weeks before this announcement, three other Catholic schools on Long Island were slated for closure for the same reasons. One account notes that these closures come “amid warnings from education experts that the economic impact of the virus threatens private schools statewide.”

A CNBC report in June 2020 found that “[w]hen the coronavirus crisis hit New York, many of [New York] city’s wealthiest families went elsewhere,” taking students previously enrolled in private schools with them. It is unknown if these families will ever return. One private school leader quantified the impact at her institution: “We are looking at a 10% to 25% decrease at this point.” In addition to students moving, the shifting financial situations of many families also may impact enrollment. Dramatically higher levels of unemployment has families across the state reconsidering tuition costs, with local public schools becoming a much more affordable alternative.

In New York, about 1,800 private and parochial schools enroll nearly 400,000 students in grades K-12 statewide. If the 10 to 25 percent enrollment decrease is a statewide trend, 40,000-100,000 private school students will be newly enrolling elsewhere this fall. Some may pursue education at other private schools and others may enroll in their local public school systems. With the State Education Department recently issuing guidelines on 6-foot spacing between desks and schools quickly trying to figure out how to physically accommodate the students they already have, few if any districts are planning on a surge in student enrollment. At a statewide per pupil expenditure average of around $23,000 per child, too, the financial burden of a surge in newly enrolling this number of public school students could be significant.

Some officials hope that New York City will buy the private school buildings being vacated and use them to spread out students currently in more crowded public school classrooms, better accommodating social-distancing needs. But this overlooks an important question: where will all the children that used to fill these shuttered schools now enroll? Public schools could actually become more crowded, not less.

…Or More Students Shifting to Private Schools?

But there’s a flip side.

Myra McGovern, vice president of media for the National Association of Independent Schools noted that “with smaller class sizes, on average, private schools could have more flexibility when it comes to adhering to the standards for reopening.” Indeed, the president of one education consulting firm reported that she was working with parents looking to move their children from public schools to private schools, saying “They do perceive that private schools are in a better position to implement safety measures, whether it’s putting in a new ventilation system or doing a better job distancing the students.” A recent news account about private schools in the Washington D.C. area highlights how the full-day, in-person instruction being offered, along with what is perceived to be a greater ability to provide more comprehensive virtual instruction if needed, is luring parents who need the flexibility to return to work full-time.

Officials at several private schools in New York are urging the state to consider their greater flexibility to quickly accommodate social-distancing standards, provide remote learning options, and meet other requirements, and allow consideration of them separately from public district schools in reopening determinations. These schools may become havens for parents looking to escape the perceived uncertainness of local public school plans for this fall.

If parents of a significant number of students currently enrolled in public schools switch their children to private schools, local districts might find their coronavirus-based reopening plans a little easier to implement. Administrators are unlikely to know that impact before the first day of school this fall, however. The July 30 deadline for submitting comprehensive reopening plans to the State Education Department means that these plans will not capture the impact of enrollment shifts that will become known only over the course of the last four weeks before school opens. Additionally, if schools in a particular region are forced into all-virtual instruction because of an uptick in coronavirus cases that triggers the state’s closure mandate, any given school district could experience a substantial enrollment shift mid-year.

Shifts in student enrollment and instructional approaches… may inadvertently accentuate gaps in the quality and quantity of instructional education provided to students most in need.

Equity Concerns

A switch to private school, however, is an option only for parents who can afford to pay the tuition required to make the switch. Additionally, instructional support services for public school students―such as private tutors or small-group settings that can supplement and better fill gaps created by districts’ decisions to return students part-time, staggered days, or only virtually―often are options not economically practical for low-income families. In reaction to a “general feeling that online school this spring was awful, with disengaged and lonely students, hours of schoolwork, unreasonable expectations for parents and, in many cases, little new learning for children,” some parents with the flexibility and resources to do so are creating their own out-of-school support options. A Facebook group called Pandemic Pods, for example, is designed to bring together small groups of San Francisco-area parents to share tutors for supplemental instruction, provide group help with homework, or other activities while accommodating parents’ work schedules. Created on July 7, the private group reached 28,400 members less than three weeks later.

Shifts in student enrollment and instructional approaches taken by public school districts under their reopening plans may inadvertently accentuate gaps in the quality and quantity of instructional education provided to students most in need. The Washington Post summarizes it like this: “It’s a situation that could exacerbate existing inequalities, with wealthier students attending classes in person at private schools, and everyone else using public schools’ distance learning, which left many students behind in their academics.”

The last thing education officials need in New York these days is more uncertainty, especially about enrollment numbers. But, unfortunately, that’s just what they’ve got.


Brian Backstrom is director of education policy studies at the Rockefeller Institute of Government.