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Here's why Washington public schools have lost thousands of students since COVID-19 pandemic

The five largest school districts in Washington have reported dips in enrollment since the beginning of the pandemic.

SEATTLE — Since the pandemic, public school enrollment in Washington state has dropped by more than 60,000 students. 

Instead, many families have chosen to enroll their children in private or homeschool.  

Jennifer McLucas said her family switched from public to homeschooling during the pandemic.  

“It was extremely difficult," McLucas said about distance learning. "I had a child in middle school, a child in high school, and two kids in elementary school and trying to coordinate their Zoom times and connect with their teachers and to find out what we needed to do, it was just, it was really overwhelming for me."

“At the time I was looking for anything that would bring some peace to our home, and [homeschooling] really worked for us,” McLucas said. 

In fact, the family has not looked back. McLucas lives in Vancouver, Washington, and homeschools four of her kids.  

“I think people are learning that there’s more than one way to make things work for your family, and I think that’s good," McLucas said. "There’s a lot of freedom there. I definitely would not have tried it if it had not been for the pandemic.” 

In the 2019-2020 school year, state data shows there were 1,140,973 kids enrolled in public schooling. Compare that to just 1,074,078 students in the current school year (2022-23). That’s a drop of 66,895 students. 

According to state records, since the pandemic the five largest school districts in Washington all have reported dips in enrollment. The biggest changes typically happen in Elementary Schools.  

Meanwhile, private and homeschool enrollment has gone up. According to the state data available, private school enrollment has increased by 17% (from 59,239 students pre-pandemic to 69,522 in the 2022-23 school year excluding pre-K).  

Homeschool enrollment has increased 43% (from 20,844 registered students in 2019-2020 to 29,798 students in the 2022-23 school year.) 

There are many students who remain unaccounted for. A recent nationwide study, done by Stanford University and the Associated Press, looked at 2019-2020 public school enrollment compared to 2021-22 and showed more than 10,000 students were simply missing in Washington State. Those were students whose disappearance from the public school system couldn’t be traced to private or homeschool enrollment, or a change in the school-age population.  

“One of the most striking effects of the pandemic was an historically unprecedented exodus from public schools,” said professor Thomas Dee, who authored the Stanford study on nationwide enrollment. 

“What's going on here is really straightforward,” Dee said. “Parents of really young children didn't want to sit them in front of a computer all day; in particular at the kindergarten level, where often that choice is optional."

That’s the case in Washington state too. It’s one of the few states in the United States where enrollment in school is optional until age eight. That means parents do not have to inform the state about their decision to enroll kids in public, private or homeschool until that time.

“There are at least three explanations for what's going on here,” Dee said. “One is: that some kids might be truant, they're just not in school. They dropped out [and] aren't attending. Two: They might be enrolled in homeschooling, but they haven't informed the state. So, there might be unregistered homeschooling. And a third and particularly important hypothesis is: Kids are skipping kindergarten.” 

“I keep saying to folks, no one lost children in this process, what we lost are the data around the enrollments and where they landed,” said Chris Reykdal, WA State Superintendent of Public Instruction, who believes most of the missing students are due to unregistered homeschooling. “Most of the gap that we […] don't have a hard number for, it's because they're in homeschool models.” 

“I do not understand why it does not pass to move it to the national sort of five- and six-year-old framework,” said Reykdal, who has been a proponent of lowering the compulsory age. “That would help us a ton because it explains so much of what happened during the pandemic. We know all the students who are with us. We know how our enrollments are declining due to birth rates, we pretty much have a good sense of private school, and those who told us they're going to homeschool, we know. But there are thousands, who do not tell us. And that's the difference.” 

The pandemic influenced public schooling when work-from-home became an option for many parents.  

“We're seeing some places in rural Washington where enrollments are growing because folks are saying, ‘Gosh, I can work remotely (and) I can live in a lower cost environment,'" Reykdal said. "So it’s complicated one district to the next."

For example, in western Washington, the small district of Oakville saw a 25% increase in enrollment. State data showed public school numbers rose from 272 students in 2019-20 to 341 students in 2022-23. 

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