Statewide pre-kindergarten through 12th grade enrollment has dropped 2.3 percent from last school year, state Department of Education officials reported Tuesday. Locally, Orleans Parish has enrolled 3.3 percent fewer students than last year, according to state data.

The enrollment declines come in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an effort to curb infections and protect adult school employees, who are more vulnerable to complications from the disease than children, school districts across the country have suspended in-person classes, either temporarily or for sustained periods of time. The shakeup has resulted in more frequent absenteeism locally, according to NOLA Public Schools district officials. Nationally, one education research group estimated that as many as three million students have fallen off the educational grid. 

The state’s latest official student count, released on Tuesday morning, gives officials the first detailed look at enrollment 10 months after the pandemic first shuttered schools. Since then, educators across the state and country have been working to set up robust virtual learning and bring students back into classrooms when it’s deemed safe. The enrollment numbers — tallied on Oct. 1 — determine how much per-pupil funding each school receives. Unexpected declines in enrollment could cause funding drops, which could prove particularly difficult for smaller schools. 

Across the state, enrollment dropped from 716,416 students last spring to 699,625 in October. In Orleans Parish, last spring’s enrollment tallied 46,602, and dropped to 45,037 in October.

Pre-K and kindergarten accounted for nearly half of the decline across the state, State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley told Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members at their meeting Tuesday.

“What is happening, we believe, is families just aren’t sending their kids to school,” Brumley said.

Brumley also pointed to an analysis of 33 states (that did not include Louisiana) by the Associated Press and Chalkbeat, which found that those states saw enrollment losses of roughly two percent.

“We are right in line with that national number,” Brumley said.

Meanwhile, enrollment in upper grades increased, Brumley said. For those students who did leave, Brumley said transferring out of state was the most common reason schools reported. Following that were transferring to home schooling and transferring to a nonpublic school.

On national phone calls, Brumley said he’s heard other district leaders speak about lower kindergarten enrollment with the likelihood that those students were simply waiting a year due to the pandemic. 

“We’ve heard of this notion of, to borrow a sports term, the ‘red-shirt’ kindergartener,” Brumley said, referencing a term in which a player is kept out of competition for a year to prolong their eligibility.

BESE member Holly Boffy chimed in to note she decided to keep her pre-kindergartener in an early childhood center this year due to smaller class sizes. She said it was “encouraging” that the state was in line with other states. Other parents like Boffy may too have opted for daycares, which are both in smaller settings and not beholden to school district decision-making about school closures.

Some families also moved children to private schools, which have often remained open even as nearby public schools closed. Transferring to nonpublic school was the third most common reason students left public schools, Brumley said.

Brumley also speculated that Hurricanes Laura and Delta, which delivered devastating blows to Southwest Louisiana, caused some students to transfer out of state, including neighboring Texas. 

“I have to think our numbers would not be 2.3 or 2.4 percent if we had not experienced those storms,” Brumely said.

Calcasieu Parish and Cameron Parish saw some of the worst damage from last season’s storms. Calcasieu’s enrollment decreased by 10.6 percent, from 31,609 students to 28,265 students in those six months. Cameron Parish saw a similar enrollment drop of 11.2 percent. The small district dropped from 1,335 students to 1,186.

NOLA Public Schools spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said the district expects to see enrollment variation each year, caused in particular by families moving and how many new students enroll in kindergarten.

“In keeping with the state’s trend about half of our year over year enrollment change can be attributed to a change in the number of Pre-kindergarten and Kindergarten students entering the school system. Annually we expect to see changes in our Kindergarten enrollment, for example, last year’s number of Kindergarteners was larger than in the prior 2 years,” Alfonzo wrote in an email. “Additionally, our data suggests that the majority of the students who left our system indicated that they were transferring to another school either in or outside of Louisiana.”

Update: This story was updated with a statement from NOLA Public Schools provided after publication.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...