Enrollment has dropped slightly in New Hampshire public schools this year, continuing a years-long trend that appears to have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
From the 2020-2021 school year to this fall, the number of students in New Hampshire public schools fell from 160,715 to 159,334, according to numbers released by the Department of Education last week.
That change is a slight decrease from the prior year, but one that perpetuates a bigger drop after the onset of COVID-19 two years ago. And its causes are up for interpretation: Some have pointed to the outbreak of the coronavirus, which shuttered schools and saddled many families with additional pressure at home. Others say an interest in education opportunities outside public education has contributed. Still others say the root causes are broader demographic changes that predate the virus entirely.
Either way, the latest numbers are clear: From the school year leading into pandemic to the 2020-2021 school year, enrollment dipped from 167,284 to 160,715, a decrease of 6,569, or 3.9 percent. For the five years previous to that, enrollment across the state hovered closer to 170,000, decreasing slightly every year.
The drop occurred in the early months of the pandemic, as many districts began a year of remote learning. But even with schools returning to in-person learning this year, enrollment has not seen a rebound.
This year, some districts are seeing wilder swings than others. Manchester has 737 fewer students attending every day on average than it did during the year of remote learning — a decrease that has lowered the state’s largest school district from just under 13,000 students to just over 12,000. But that decrease — 6 percent — is a smaller proportion than other districts.
Hampton is seeing 108 fewer kids this year — a 12 percent drop from the year before. It lost only five students in the year prior to the pandemic.
Winchester had 54 fewer kids at the start of this school year, a 16 percent drop, which is higher than the 6 percent decrease the year before. The Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative school district has 13 percent fewer students this year, a drop of 160.
Other, larger districts saw a smaller proportion of their students leave. Merrimack counted 206 fewer students; Concord now has 240 fewer; and Keene lost 190. In all three districts, the schools lost 6 percent, but the departures added hundreds to the statewide total.
Despite the loss in overall attendance during the remote learning year — and a corresponding drop in the number of families applying for free or reduced lunches — districts are not losing out on funding for now. In the two-year budget passed and signed earlier this year, the Legislature voted for a temporary fix, directing the Department of Education to use prior years’ attendance counts to determine how much additional aid it should allocate per school.
Enrollment decreases are nothing new in New Hampshire. From 1994 to 2017, enrollment dropped around 9 percent overall, state figures show. An aging population and a steady exodus of college-aged young adults has steadily lowered the number of families, a persisting trend that policymakers and advocates have been trying to reverse.
But the pandemic appears to have accelerated the pattern recently, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut says.
“We continue to see a demographic decline in enrollment numbers,” he said in a statement. “Following the disruptions of COVID-19 and various setbacks, enrollment declines have been experienced nationwide.”
Advocates of school-choice programs — which include allowing families to use public money toward private schools and the opening of more public charter schools — have pointed to the recent drop in numbers as indicative of a frustration among some families with public schools after a year of remote learning. Recent cultural flashpoints over masks and concerns over “critical race theory” have driven those numbers, advocates say. In its first year, New Hampshire’s new education savings account saw 1,600 families sign up to receive state funds to use toward private or home schooling.
But some public school advocates argue the numbers are more likely the product of the slow-moving, inevitable decline in the number of young families in the state. And charter schools have also seen slight declines in enrolment this year.
In the short term at least, the pandemic-era dip could reverse itself slightly.
“While many of our students have returned after a 2020 pandemic hiatus, we continue to see COVID-related declines in enrollment,” Edelblut said. “However, since schools are now fully reopened in New Hampshire, I anticipate this number will slowly begin to advance upward, especially as efforts continue to be made to connect and engage with families.”