Longer public schools closed for pandemic, more students they lost

Longer public schools closed for pandemic, more students they lost

New research shows remote learning spurred the enrollment declines plaguing public schools. Schools with more in-person instruction lost fewer students.

Public schools across the country are returning to pre-pandemic norms, with access to in-person and maskless instruction available to most students nationwide. But enrollment in public school districts is down compared to before the pandemic.

An estimated 1.27 million students are missing from public schools since the onset of COVID-19. Research by the American Enterprise Institute exposes remote learning as a driving cause of the exodus.

Districts with mostly remote learning since 2020 experienced an average two-year enrollment decline of 4.4%. School districts that offered mostly in-person learning experienced only a 1.1% drop.

In other words, districts that offered mostly in-person classes better retained students and even saw enrollment rebound this past school year. Mostly remote school districts saw larger declines during the first two years of the pandemic and those declines continued in 2022.

In Illinois, the two-year decline in public school enrollment is 3.42%. Among the 46 states analyzed in AEI’s Return2Learn Tracker, Illinois is one of just 19 states that experienced a net 3% or greater decline in enrollment during the past two school years. Illinois tied for the 16th-largest drop in students attending public schools.

Three of the five states with the greatest two-year enrollment decline – Oregon, California and Hawaii – rank among the five states that offered the least access to full-time, in-person instruction between September 2020 and April 2021, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s morbidity and mortality weekly report. Less than 5% of students in the three states received access to full-time, in-person learning.

Factors influencing remote status

One factor influencing a district’s decision to learn remotely is teachers union strength.

Researchers from the University of Nevada and Michigan State University analyzed 250 of the largest school districts nationwide and found larger school districts and school districts with lengthy contracts were associated with a lower probability of reopening with in-person instruction in the beginning of the fall 2020 semester and spent fewer weeks in person.

This research helps explain why large school districts in major cities with strong teachers unions have experienced some of the most dramatic enrollment drops. Their students were kept out of classrooms for much of the 2020-2021 school year.

The two largest school districts in the U.S., New York City and Los Angeles Unified, have lost 9.5% and 8.1% of their student bodies since the onset of COVID-19, nearly double the national average in mostly remote districts.

More than 27,000 students were missing when students in Los Angeles Unified school district finally returned to full-time, in-person learning in fall 2021, after costly agreements with the United Teachers Los Angeles union and stringent COVID-19 testing procedures.

New York City students also struggled to access in-person learning. Throughout the 2020-2021 school year, the district reclosed 2,373 school buildings for extended periods because of a rule – pushed by the United Federation of Teachers – forcing a 10-day school closure following two or more consecutive but untraceable positive tests. UFT defended the policy, despite experts calling the metric “overly reactive.”

In Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest school district in the U.S., it was the same as students spent most of the 2020-2021 school year in remote or hybrid learning, despite the governor lifting the school closure mandate prior to the start of the school year.

Even after returning to in-person learning, Chicago students remained masked longer than most other Illinois public students thanks to the Chicago Teachers Union’s safety agreement with CPS, which they got after walking out on students for five school days in January.

Chicago Public Schools has lost nearly 25,000 students since the onset of the pandemic in 2020. The two-year decline in enrollment reached 6.5% – higher than the 4.4% national average for mostly-remote districts.

Amendment 1 would strengthen union influence over public schools

A proposed change to the Illinois Constitution – disingenuously dubbed a “workers’ rights amendment” – would stamp teachers unions’ influence over Illinois public schools and students with the power of the state constitution.

Amendment 1 includes a requirement to negotiate over not just traditional subjects of bargaining, but also additional subjects such as “economic welfare.” If it passes on Nov. 8, teachers unions could expand their relative power by bargaining over a virtually limitless array of subjects, keeping students out of classrooms until their demands are met.

But the fight for control doesn’t end with COVID-19 policies.

Unions will be able to demand anything during negotiations and go on strike to get their way. CTU has already pushed its social agenda on housing, immigration, “restorative justice,” wealth redistribution and defunding the police. Lawmakers would be unable to restrict what unions could negotiate, and powerless to limit when or how often union bosses could call a strike and keep students out of classrooms.

The Illinois Federation of Teachers publicly registered support – twice – for Amendment 1 when it was before the Illinois General Assembly. CTU did the same.

The past two years have shown how teachers’ unions use the power they have in ways that don’t put students first. And parents have responded by leaving the public education system.

So imagine what unions could do if voters on Nov. 8 give them complete power over an entire state.

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