NEW YORK — Enrollment in city public schools has fallen by 43,000 students since last year, new data shows — a sign some families have left the system as it struggles to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic.

In all, there are now about 960,000 students enrolled in the city’s non-charter public schools, which have not been fully open to all students five days a week since last March.

What You Need To Know

  • The drop is a sign some families have left the system as it struggles to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • The decline was most pronounced among the youngest students

  • It could have ramifications for school budgets

The decline was most sharpest among the youngest students: the city enrolled about 10,000 fewer students in early childhood grades this school year than last. Enrollment in 3K, pre-K for three-year-olds, fell by 8%, while enrollment in Pre-K, for four-year-olds, fell by 13%.

Students in those grades are not required by law to attend school — so their parents may be keeping them home during the pandemic, and similar drops have been seen across the country.

But enrollment also sharply dropped, by 9%, for kindergarten, the first grade level where schooling is required by law. 

The city has seen declining enrollment in schools for years, in part due to lower birth rates. And some grade levels remained stable — first grade enrollment fell by 6%, the same as it did last year, for example. Still, most grades lost more students than they did last year. Across the fifteen grades, from 3K to twelfth, just six of them experienced either growth or the same level of enrollment loss as last year.

The data doesn’t indicate where these students have gone. In addition to younger children simply saying home, some may have enrolled in private, parochial or charter schools in the city. Other families may have left the school district and the city entirely — enrolling their children in open schools near second homes, or moving entirely to seek out more space and fully open school districts in nearby suburbs like those on Long Island.

“Given the current circumstances of pandemic it is no surprise that we are seeing greater fluctuations in enrollment this year. However, no school district has stabilized its school system the way we have, which means that we can and will continue to offer the gold standard in health, safety, and learning in a completely transformed educational environment to our students,” DOE spokeswoman Kate O’Hanlon said.

About 70% of the city’s public school students are from low-income homes, and the data is sure to fuel speculation about whether those with the financial means to leave the system might be doing so — and what it could mean for the system’s stability moving forward.

It may also have more practical and immediate ramifications. School budgets are based in part on the size of school enrollment, and the shrinking numbers could leave some strapped for cash at a time when they need more than usual to fund substitute teachers and other pandemic related expenses.