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Breaking Down the Decline in Public School Enrollment

Regional Matters
March 4, 2021

The Richmond Fed is hosting a six-part series on racial and economic disparities in education and COVID-19. Visit the District Dialogues webpage to learn more and to register.

Across the United States, many states have reported declines in public school enrollment for the fall 2020 semester. According to data from state departments of education, public school enrollment has decreased in all Fifth District states and the District of Columbia. Tracking enrollment trends during the pandemic will allow researchers to better understand how COVID-19 has disrupted education and will enable them to make predictions about its long-term consequences on issues such as education funding and school readiness.

Within the Fifth District, North Carolina and Virginia had the largest public school student bodies in fall 2020 at 1.46 million and 1.25 million students, respectively. The District of Columbia had the smallest enrollment at 93.4 thousand, followed by West Virginia at 252.4 thousand students. South Carolina had 766.8 thousand students enrolled in fall 2020, and Maryland had 882.5 thousand. Over the past 10 years, the rate of public school enrollment in these states has slowed, but generally remained positive, with the exception of West Virginia, which has experienced negative enrollment rates since 2013. (See chart below.) Between fall 2019 and fall 2020, however, total enrollment in North Carolina dropped by 4 percent. Over the same period, enrollment fell in West Virginia and Virginia by 3.5 percent, in Maryland by 3 percent, and in South Carolina by 2.6 percent. The District of Columbia had the smallest drop in public school enrollment at only 1 percent.

Fall 2020 Enrollment by Grade

Breaking enrollment down by grade level shows that drops in enrollment were concentrated primarily at the prekindergarten (pre-K), kindergarten, and elementary levels. Maryland pre-K enrollment fell by 26.7 percent, with South Carolina following closely at 25.9 percent. The District of Columbia had the smallest decline in pre-K enrollment at 7.3 percent. West Virginia saw a 20.8 percent decline, and Virginia experienced an 18.6 percent fall in pre-K enrollment. However, enrollment in higher grade levels across all Fifth District states and the District of Columbia faced a smaller percent decline. In fact, only North Carolina showed a decline in high school enrollment.

Fall 2020 Enrollment by Race and Ethnicity

For those states where enrollment data by race and ethnicity is available, the decline in enrollment was largest for non-Hispanic white students, except in West Virginia where Asian students experienced a larger drop.  Non-Hispanic white student enrollment decreased 6.1 percent in Maryland, 3.9 percent in North Carolina, 4.3 percent in South Carolina, 5.9 percent in Virginia, and 3.8 percent in West Virginia. Black student enrollment also dropped this year, though by a smaller percentage than white students in most states. Between fall 2019 and fall 2020, black student enrollment declined 1.8 percent in Maryland, 0.7 percent in North Carolina, 2.6 percent in South Carolina, 2.3 percent in Virginia, and 4 percent in West Virginia. When compared to black and non-Hispanic white enrollment, Hispanic and Asian enrollment had less clear patterns of decline. Asian enrollment declined in all states with available data, except North Carolina. Hispanic enrollment decreased in Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, but increased in South Carolina.

Virginia Enrollment Patterns for Fall 2020

The Virginia Department of Education publishes enrollment data by both race and grade level, which makes it possible to observe patterns and disparities across different groups. The data shows that only non-Hispanic white students in Virginia experienced enrollment declines across all grade level groups, including high school. Black, Hispanic, and Asian students did not experience declines in high school enrollment. Kindergarten enrollment for non-Hispanic white students fell by 18 percent, but only 8 percent for Asian, black, and Hispanic students. However, this difference appears opposite for pre-K enrollment. Black student enrollment in pre-K declined by 20.5 percent, and Hispanic enrollment declined by 19.6 percent. Conversely, non-Hispanic white enrollment declined 16.7 percent. Going forward, these disparities raise important questions about the long-term consequences of COVID-19.


Due to COVID-19, regular patterns of K-12 enrollment were disrupted during the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. Further research on enrollment will be needed as the school year progresses. Additionally, more research is needed to understand why we observe disparities between enrollment trends across grade levels and across different racial groups. It is vital to understand the implications of these trends, since disruptions in learning could have downstream effects on our future workforce. Understanding these disparities and how to address them is the subject of District Dialogues, a six-part series hosted by the Richmond Fed. The series brings together educators, policymakers, and economists for frank discussions about the challenges our communities are facing and possible solutions. Visit the District Dialogues homepage to learn more and to register.

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