At the start of the pandemic in 2020, New York City public schools boasted 1.1 million students.
This coming school year, just 760,000 are expected to take their seats in classrooms.
Mayor Adams minced no words at a recent event: “We have a massive hemorrhaging of students — massive hemorrhaging. We’re in a very dangerous place in the number of students that we are dropping.”
The drop in enrollment in the nation’s largest school district — which has been losing students, at a slower pace, since 2016 — is shocking, but it’s not surprising. As I detail in my forthcoming book “The Stolen Year,” when schools closed their doors in New York City on March 13, 2020, they broke a social compact. This nation and this city do not provide the basics working families need to survive. Public schools have historically stepped into the breach.
So when schools closed, far too many children lost access not only to learning, but to safety, food, caring adults, even warmth. And they lost intangible things too—the habit of attendance, the trust that the schools would be there when they needed them.
Enrollment has trended down since the pandemic in public schools all over the country, but especially in big cities, and especially in blue states where remote learning lasted longer.
There are many reasons students are leaving New York City, and many places they are going: private or charter schools, homeschooling, out of the city or — most concerningly — dropping out altogether.
Bringing them back is going to take concerted effort. And investments. Cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from the schools’ budget, as is currently on the table, is instead accepting decline for years to come. And it would be a betrayal of our city’s most vulnerable.
When I say betrayal, let’s be clear: Remote learning was never an adequate substitute, especially not for the city’s most vulnerable. And those in charge damn well should’ve known it at the time.
In June 2020, a coalition of groups including Advocates for Children, The Bronx Defenders, and Brooklyn Defender Services wrote a letter to Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. They detailed several cases where families lacked devices, internet connections, language skills to navigate remote learning or appropriate lesson plans for children with disabilities. These included families living in shelters and the children of essential workers with no adults at home to supervise remote learning.
Yet instead of helping them get connected and stay connected, these advocates accused schools were calling child welfare to report these families for neglect when their kids failed to sign in to Zoom school.
In the fall of 2020, to Mayor de Blasio’s credit, New York City made a stronger commitment to reopening than most big-city districts. Still, the start of the school year was delayed twice. And the entire year was bedeviled by complicated hybrid schedules, quarantines and fresh rounds of closures hitting individual classrooms and entire schools. Whether or not they were technically enrolled in hybrid, most students spent most of their year at home.
Wealthier people had choices. They left for open schools in parts of New Jersey or states like Florida. They crowded into private schools. They formed “pods” to share the childcare burden and provide some social contact.
I kept my 4-year-old in her private Montessori for another year. I put my then-fourth grader into a lower-cost private online school where she could work at her own pace and not be on Zoom all day, and an outdoor program where she played with a small group of masked children in the park for three days a week.
Parents — overwhelmingly mothers — left the workforce or scaled back their hours to deal with the mess. We did our best.
But we shouldn’t underestimate how much kids suffered, educationally and emotionally.
In less privileged families, as documented by my reporting, teens cared for younger siblings or went out to work at essential jobs themselves. Children with developmental delays and special needs didn’t get assessments, therapies or interventions.
While schools were entirely or mostly shut, we can say confidently, students didn’t learn as much. We’re never going to know officially just how much learning they missed, because there was no state testing in 2020 and only four out of 10 New York City kids actually took the state tests administered in 2021.
Meanwhile, the nation’s pediatricians say that childhood mental health, exacerbated by the pandemic, has become a national emergency. The surgeon general issued an advisory to the same effect.
These national trends hit close to home for me. My daughter’s best friend started watching YouTube rather than doing her work. Her dad was working from home and busy with her younger sibling and the school didn’t notify them for weeks. Another family in our circle had an elementary school-aged child who became suicidal with the lack of social contact.
This past school year, with schools finally opening five days a week, should have been a recovery year for the district.
But no. Enrollment kept dropping. Blame omicron. Blame three chancellors in as many school years. Blame staff shortages. Blame exclusionary discipline that punished kids, essentially, for their own missed socialization. Blame a lingering fear of in-person attendance, especially in the communities hardest hit by the virus.
Don’t blame tens of thousands of families who picked charter schools, which seemed to get a handle on remote learning more quickly, had more accountable leadership, did a better job of communicating their plans and procedures.
I opted for a charter for my older daughter this past year. My younger one had a great kindergarten year in her neighborhood public school. So I have a foot in both camps personally. And as a New Yorker and a partisan of education, I don’t like seeing our traditional public schools on the slide. I’m sure the mayor is worried about what the emptying classrooms mean for the city’s reputation, its attractiveness to families, the headcount-based federal and state funding we’re losing, not to mention future workforce needs. It’s not good for our tax base to have affluent families leaving for the suburbs. There are good reasons to fear a return to the 70s, where the streets and subways felt unsafe, public infrastructure was decrepit and the city came to the brink of bankruptcy.
But more urgent morally is the fate of the missing students, mostly teenagers and mostly lower-income, who have dropped out altogether over the past two-plus years-and those who will likely continue to drop out as disengagement and absenteeism snowball.
So let’s talk about what it would take for all of our young people to succeed.
Children and teens who are struggling academically, socially and emotionally need schools that meet them where they are, full of adults who care about them, who have the time and the training to show it.
In the spring of 2020, I interviewed a student I’ll call Emmanuel, who was living in Flatbush with his mother and grandmother. He had struggled academically before following in his brother’s footsteps to Liberation Diploma Plus, at an alternative public high school in Coney Island. The school is small and focuses on giving students personalized paths to graduation.
Battling anxiety, loneliness and depression, Emmanuel successfully finished up his high school degree at the age of 20, in the winter of 2021. He credited his friends and his teachers. “The school is more like a family than staff and students. We interact with each other; we talk to each other every day.”
Dayana came to Brooklyn from Caracas just two years before the pandemic, at 15 years old. She enrolled in Brooklyn International School, a public high school that enrolls English language learners from all over the world. Like Emmanuel, she found a welcoming community at school.
During lockdown, Dayana and her little brother didn’t leave the apartment for over a month. She struggled with her mental health and the loss of milestones like the senior class trip to Washington. But gradually, she started talking to the school psychologist over Google Meet, and writing about her experiences for the student journal.
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Studies of schools and districts around the country that weathered the pandemic more successfully show that these experiences are part of a pattern. Students thrived in schools that built community long before 2020. They had students meet in small advisory groups daily. They invested in student activities, like Dayana’s student journal. They had mental health resources available. And they recognized and rewarded staff who went above and beyond to build relationships.
Longstanding research also shows that to entice dropouts back to successfully get their degrees, they need academic support. This can include flexible, multiple paths to graduation, like Emmanuel experienced at Liberation Diploma Plus. They may need online credit recovery to get credits more quickly; classes that track closely to careers; the opportunity to follow their own interests with projects, internships and co-ops.
There are plenty of schools in our vast and diverse system that already fit this description. And there are more caring and talented educators than we can count. And we know that investing in relationships and in academic support is not just good for “at-risk” kids. Research shows that specializations, like themed magnet schools, can entice families with other choices back into the system. And everyone benefits when schools are friendlier, more welcoming places.
Expanding these offerings, making sure students know about them, and tracking down the students who have been disengaging from school since 2020 is going to take time and obviously money. The cheap out from the mayor is instead making things worse. It’s driving cuts in activities like arts and music — sometimes the only reasons kids have for going to school.
I’m afraid citing the downturn in enrollment now as a reason not to invest in the future is the definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If kids don’t succeed, the city won’t succeed. And the same leaders who shortchanged our children in the first place will be responsible.
Kamenetz is a longtime education reporter and author of “The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children’s Lives, And Where We Go Now.”