Between mass shootings, anti-LGBTQ bills, burned-out teachers, diverse books being banned, and the school-to-prison pipeline, as well as drill-and-kill standardized-test-driven instruction, is it any wonder some students aren’t feeling like showing up to school anymore? Sprinkle the educational disruptions from COVID-19 on top, and it’s understandable that thousands of students have disappeared from the K-12 public education system.

It’s not that educators aren’t trying to coax kids back to campus or working to make lessons more interesting. But public education doesn’t always allow children — particularly Black children — to dream.

One place that’s helping students dream again is El Centro de Estudiantes, one of two Philadelphia high schools that are part of the Big Picture network. As part of their education model, Big Picture schools focus on the real-world applicability of learning and center student interests. Principal Jacquelyn Tisdale says these are key components that help students to re-engage with learning.

“Their interests are at the forefront,” Tisdale says. “All of our decisions are student-centered.”

Now, it’s like they can actually dream again.

Jaquelyn Tisdale, El Centro de Estudiantes principal

At El Centro, students are “over-aged and under-credited,” meaning they are 16-21 with less than 13.5 school credits. For these students, traditional schooling didn’t work, and this personalized environment helps them find value and allows them to put time into what they want to do in life.

“For my students, not only are they really engaging back into the school environment, but during [the pandemic], they might have lost their dream, they might have thought their dream didn’t matter,” Tisdale says. “Now, it’s like they can actually dream again.”

But enthusiastically re-engaging in education is not the universal experience around the country. In fact, as enrollment rates start to bounce back, there are still hundreds of thousands of students missing from school.

Chronic absenteeism became a huge problem during the pandemic, as not showing up for school became as simple as not signing onto Zoom. And absenteeism wasn’t evenly distributed. In Los Angeles Unified, the second-largest school district in the country, Black students had a chronic absenteeism rate of 29%, which was above the district average of 17% and more than twice the state average of 14%.

In a July 2022 report, the National Center for Education Statistics found that nearly 40% of schools reported an increase in chronic absenteeism since the previous school year (2020/2021), and that schools in cities, or with higher levels of students in poverty or students of color, reported higher percentages of chronic absenteeism in 2021/2022.

As we head into the third pandemic school year, states, districts, schools, and educators are struggling to figure out how to bring those students back.

Where Did Students Go and Why?

Black and Brown families were hit hardest by the pandemic, experiencing among the highest COVID-19 infection and death rates. And there were other troubles that weren’t health-related, like disproportionate job losses and financial insecurity

The strain was felt at all levels of the family. Older kids took on domestic responsibilities, like caring for siblings or prioritizing the education of their younger family members, offering up the limited WiFi or the only available electronic device. Others got jobs to help support their family, which they could balance when school was virtual, but maybe decided to pursue instead once school returned in-person.

School districts across the country are seeing these dramatic enrollment drops firsthand. In Los Angeles, the school district estimates that between 10,000 and 20,000 students are missing from back-to-school rosters, primarily in the youngest grades. At the start of the 2021/2022 school year, 75% of New York City public schools were down in enrollment, and the education department expects enrollment to decrease by another 30,000 this fall.

We really don’t have good information on where they went. We just know a lot of them didn’t enroll.

Dr. Nat Malkus, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE deputy director of education policy studies

But, since most of the enrollment drops are in the K-3 age group, it is likely explained by parents keeping their kids at home until they feel more comfortable sending them back, or “red-shirting” them, says Dr. Nat Malkus, the deputy director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

“That’s the bulk of the kids who — whatever you want to call it — dropped out or stayed back, and that’s just obviously very different from an eighth grader dropping out of school for a year or two,” Malkus says. “But we really don’t have good information on where they went. We just know a lot of them didn’t enroll.”

Enrollment rates increased in private schools and among people homeschooling their children, but that doesn’t account for the bulk of the decline.

“I don’t want to be overly alarmist about this,” Malkus says, “some kids just didn’t go to school.”

‘We Haven’t Seen Anything Like This in Recent Memory’

The Return to Learn Tracker, a product of the American Enterprise Institute, counts 1,268,000 students who have left school since the pandemic began, and 1,177,000 were in the 2020/2021 school year.

“We haven’t seen anything like this in recent memory at all,” Malkus says.

Though these aren’t the biggest declines in history, Malkus says — compared to World War II declines, which took place over a five- or six-year period, and the flu pandemic — they are the largest one-year and two-year declines in U.S. history.

Following the huge drop in the first pandemic year, there was a plateau in the second year, “but the overall average stays the same because we saw rebounds in some districts and continued declines in other districts, so they balance out,” Malkus says. “But that doesn’t mean that the decline stopped everywhere. It means that there was still a lot of post-pandemic shifting. So I think that we’ve seen a lot of enrollment churn in both years.”

In Fall 2021, districts that spent the previous school year (2020/2021) mostly in-person saw increased enrollments, the tracker analysis found, while those that were mostly remote saw a further decline in enrollment.

Only five states and the District of Columbia saw any enrollment increases since 2020.

Black students have been steadily dropping in enrollment since the 2017/2018 school year, according to historical data from the National Center for Education Statistics. There were about 300,000 fewer Black students enrolled in the 2020/2021 school year compared to the 2017/2018 school year, dropping from 15.2% of the overall student body down to 14.9%. NCES also projected a slight growth for the 2021/2022 school year, raising the number of Black students up to 7.5 million, which is still lower than the 7.7 million in 2017/2018.

How Do We Bring Students Back?

This problem isn’t going unnoticed.

States are out searching for students, and it’s going beyond automated messages and robocalls. In New Mexico, the state is reaching out to families with the help of social services. Detroit schools are relying on a 2019 initiative that allowed them to hire attendance officers to keep tabs on absent children, and the district initiated several door-to-door campaigns throughout the pandemic. And Maryland launched “pupil personnel workers,” who have many responsibilities — one being the “motivating force” to remove barriers to student achievement.

At Social Justice Humanitas, a high school in San Fernando, California, Principal Jeff Austin attributes the school community, where students feel they have relationships that matter, and the added autonomy teachers have in the classroom — like having more room to set expectations and what the work looks like — to bringing students back. 

We need to really put it out there like, ‘Hey, we’re making progress on the mistakes that education has made for forever.’

Jeff Austin, social justice humanitas principal

But it’s about more than just bringing them back into the building — especially Black and Brown students. Addressing the country’s “reckoning with our history of racism,” Austin says it makes sense that Black and Brown students wouldn’t want to come back to a system that isn’t responsive to societal changes.

“We have to focus on how we make a space for every student to feel included, welcomed. That they’re not just showing up, but what they bring to the table is important to the community,” Austin says. “We need to really put it out there like, ‘Hey, we’re making progress on the mistakes that education has made for forever.’”

In terms of COVID-19, Malkus says, it’s important to communicate to families that it’s safe to bring students back to school — especially for districts that were cautious for a longer time because, his research shows, those are the districts that lost students two years in a row. The other part of that is reiterating how the school will be responsive to COVID cases.

More importantly, educators need to make the case for how much academic ground students have to make up. While remote schooling works well for some, “the simple fact is that for the vast majority of the kids, it doesn’t work as well,” Malkus says. Districts need to communicate that traditional schooling is the best way to move forward.

“It’s very difficult to get people off of the places that they have become accustomed to,” Malkus says. “A big part of getting these kids back is making the message clear: your students belong back in school, and we are ready to catch them up.”

What Does This School Year Look Like?

As we ramp up for the 2022/2023 school year — which has already started in some places around the country — experts think we’ll continue to see a rebound in attendance.

“This past year, almost all schools were open almost all of the year — or the whole year. Towards the end of the year, almost all schools no longer required masks,” Malkus says. “So normalcy is likely to bring more students back this year. 

In Philadelphia, Tisdale doesn’t know what to expect when school starts at the end of the month. She’s hoping her students will return because they felt and experienced the love in the building.

“I’m hoping that stayed with them through the summer, and they can forge through, and all show up [at the end of] August,” Tisdale says. “That’s what I’m hoping for. They have given me the reassurance, a little bit, that they are going to come.”

People are discovering that there are ways to present education to students that fits their lives better.

While some students are coming back because they miss the community and relationships, Austin says others have decided — for better or worse — that virtual schooling fits their needs or makes their lives more flexible. But, more importantly, people are discovering that there are ways to present education to students that fit their lives better. 

“The challenge is all of us being honest about it,” Austin says. This means kids shouldn’t be able to stay home just because they want to, but at the same time, others going through mental health issues might benefit more from learning in different environments.

But Austin expects a bigger group of students this fall than he had last year, and he’s worried about making sure that everybody feels safe. Last year, even once the mask requirement was dropped, Austin said the vast majority of students continued to mask up. 

One of the factors Malkus will be looking at this school year is what impact the longer-term masking precautions have in keeping students away, or whether that doesn’t matter. It’s something he’s looked at in previous school years, reporting his findings in the Return to Learn Tracker. This question will help make sense of enrollment parents that result from “millions of decisions by families.”

“Those decisions do have enormous impacts for public schools, who are dependent on students coming in the door for revenues and to do their work,” Malkus says. “It’s an incredibly consequential question.”

Maya Pottiger is a data journalist for Word in Black. She was previously a data journalist for the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland, where she earned both her BA and Master of Journalism. Her work has been featured...