Public school districts across the United States closed for unprecedented periods during the Covid-19 pandemic. Enrollments plunged, as students either headed to private schools or stayed home for schooling. Other children simply disappeared from schools and remain unaccounted for even today by school officials. Now, because of this exodus, school districts nationwide are grappling with another kind of closing: empty classrooms and underused school buildings are prompting waves of school shutdowns, as education officials look to downsize their operations in response to smaller student populations and disappearing Covid bailout funds. In many communities, the process is messy, with parents, teachers, and teachers’ unions objecting. But failing to act will only worsen budget deficits at a time of economic uncertainty.
According to an international study, American schools closed for an average of 70 weeks during the pandemic—far longer than schools shut down in most European countries, though the length of closures varied by state. Schools in Texas and Florida, for example, were closed for just a fraction of the time that schools in California and New York were shuttered. In all, public schools lost some 1.2 million students in the first two years of the pandemic. Some migrated to private institutions, where enrollments grew by 4 percent, while homeschool numbers rose by 30 percent.
Among states sustaining the biggest losses are California, which saw public school enrollment shrink by some 245,000 in two pandemic years, and New York, where enrollments fell 80,000 in the same period. In these states and elsewhere, Covid accelerated a trend already underway. School enrollment had peaked in many states in the mid-2010s and begun slipping shortly after, a result of fewer births, outmigration, and modest growth in homeschooling and alternative schools. New York State, for instance, has lost about 6 percent of its students, or 120,000 children, since 2016. California’s enrollment has dropped by 382,000 students since the 2014 school year.
Much of the decline has unsurprisingly hit urban public school systems, a reflection of the flight of residents from big cities during the pandemic. New York City’s school population is in a state of near freefall—what Mayor Eric Adams described last year as a “massive” hemorrhaging. “We’re in a very dangerous place in the number of students that we are dropping,” he said. Enrollment, which stood at 1 million pre-pandemic, is projected to fall below 900,000 by the end of this school year. Across the country, in San Francisco, district enrollment peaked in 2017 at about 928,000 students, then plunged by 70,000 in five years, largely driven by big pandemic drops. Chicago public schools lost nearly 30,000 students during Covid. Since 2013, the system’s drop in enrollment has totaled 80,000 students, a nearly 20 percent slump. Some of those losses come in the wake of controversial job actions by Chicago teachers that closed schools in 2019 and 2022. Even as the system gets smaller, its costs—including for its steeply underfunded teachers’ pension system, which requires more than $1 billion in yearly taxpayer contributions—are soaring.
Chicago’s pre-pandemic enrollment losses led to a controversial effort by then-mayor Rahm Emanuel to close poorly performing and shrinking schools. Now school districts across America are having that same contentious debate, especially as Covid relief money from the federal government dries up. Washington sent school districts nearly $200 billion between 2020 and 2022, which schools used on everything from tutors to help kids who fell behind during the pandemic to pay hikes for teachers to upgrades to facilities. Those federal funds allowed many states to hold school’s budgets “harmless” for enrollment declines—that is, schools continued to receive at least as much money as before the pandemic, even if their student populations dwindled.
New York City, for instance, received more than $7 billion in federal funding to bolster its operations. Spending per pupil in many school systems has soared. Gotham schools, which spent about $25,000 per pupil in 2016, expended $37,136 per student last year—a 47 percent increase in just six years, according to a study by the Citizens Budget Commission. That number, according to city budget documents, will rise well above $41,000 per student in four years, without budget cuts. A recent Manhattan Institute study concluded that the current city budget is “unsustainable,” but advocates are demanding even more spending and are fighting against cuts to programs.
With pandemic funds ending, school districts can’t keep up that spending. That’s why last year saw schools begin downsizing, and this spring’s budget debates are about further scaling back operations. Colorado’s second-largest school district, encompassing Jefferson County outside of Denver, voted last fall to shutter 16 schools following a financial crisis that saw it lose about 7 percent of its students during the pandemic. The district, which had the capacity to serve 96,000 students, now has only 69,000 enrolled. Nearly 50 of the districts’ schools have fewer than 250 pupils. Nearby Denver public schools, meanwhile, have lost 6,000 students in recent years and project a further decline of 3,000 more, resulting in lost revenues potentially reaching $100 million annually. The district decided last fall to close ten schools but cut that number down to three amid parental outcry; Denver officials are looking at new ways to downsize.
Officials in many school districts are finally starting to accept that their steep enrollment declines won’t turn around soon. Los Angeles’s massive school district was among those that closed for significant periods during the pandemic. The district’s enrollment, which peaked 20 years ago and has steadily declined since, took a sharp hit during the pandemic, losing some 52,000 students. Test scores plunged for kids who stayed enrolled, and exasperated parents had to endure a three-day strike in March by school workers vying for higher wages. Like many districts, Los Angeles used federal money to maintain its budget even as enrollment declined, which means it’s now spending more than $25,000 per student. That’s unsustainable: a recent study projects that the district may lose as many as 30 percent of its current students, or roughly another 125,000 pupils, over the next decade. Major cuts are inevitable.
More and more downsizing districts are plagued by high labor costs. Seattle lost about 3,000 students, or 6 percent of its enrollment, during Covid. It faces a $131 million budget deficit next year and another potential $98 million gap the following year. More than 30 schools in the district enroll fewer than 300 students. A recent Seattle Times editorial described the district’s woes as “self-inflicted,” with generous labor contracts “eating up significantly more revenue than the district is taking in.”
In Minneapolis, where schools serve some 45,000 students, enrollment is down to 28,000; the system has lost 7,000 students in the last five years. The district has balanced its budget next year with federal funds and voted to increase its debt limit to 20 percent of revenues. “Without significant changes, MPS will run out of money during the 2024–2025 school year and be unable to operate as it does now,” the system’s finance chief warned earlier this year.
And so it goes around the country. Hartford’s school system used some $154 million in federal aid to paper over its woes, including the loss of some 4,000 students in recent years—nearly one-fifth of its total. It now faces a $24 million deficit. St. Louis’s school district closed eight schools in 2021 after losing 3,000 students in the pandemic. Many of its schools are still under-enrolled: 20 schools have fewer than 200 students. In Wisconsin, school districts are looking at closures after seven consecutive years of enrollment declines, affecting about two-thirds of districts. The state legislature is considering bills that would help ease the budget crunch that many districts face, including allowing for more consolidation of districts and cost-sharing.
It all adds up to a reckoning for public education. Many school districts remained shut for extended periods during the pandemic, despite research that showed children were among the least vulnerable populations to the virus. Incensed parents pulled their kids from schools in record numbers. Children that stayed experienced steep learning losses and, in some cases, emotional problems. In many states, legislators responded by expanding school-choice options, giving more parents the ability to opt out of public schools. Now the consequences are hitting home. Faced with the inevitable expiration of generous federal Covid aid, school systems that have shrunk now face budget crises that may turn even more parents away.
The pandemic may be over, but its impact on schools goes on.
Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images