UNTIL THIS YEAR, Jennifer Quadrozzi’s daughter had always attended public school. When the pandemic hit, Quadrozzi kept her enrolled in second grade in North Andover and stayed home with her to shepherd the remote learning process. But that experience gave Quadrozzi a direct view into her daughter’s classroom – and she wasn’t happy with what she saw.  

“We’re a conservative family,” Quadrozzi said. “We felt we had a good peek into what was being taught in the public school, and it wasn’t in line with our conservative views.” 

This year, Quadrozzi switched her daughter to a Catholic school. 

Quadrozzi appears to be part of a wave of migration out of public schools triggered in one way or another by the pandemic. When the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released its enrollment figures for the 2020-2021 school year last fall, it was clear that the pandemic had a huge impact, with 37,400 fewer students than the prior year.  Most policy experts and advocates assumed these children would return this fall. 

They haven’t.  

Newly released enrollment figures for the 2021-2022 school year show that enrollment remained flat this year, with 911,529 students attending public schools, an increase of just 65 students compared to last year. 

Attendance among the youngest students has rebounded, though it is still below 2019 levels. There are 11,381 more students in public pre-kindergarten and kindergarten this year than last year. But that means there are fewer students in many of the older grades.  

The state has not yet updated its numbers to show how many students are attending private or parochial schools or being homeschooled. Both those categories saw huge spikes last year, and the lower public school enrollment implies that some of these trends have continued.  

Keri Rodrigues, founder of Massachusetts Parents United, an urban parent group that advocates for school reforms, said schools in urban areas have seen problems with transportation and a lack of social supports. “Parents sought additional options because they simply watched a catastrophic failure of education in their living room and found something that works better, or their kids are responding better to alternative options in education,” Rodrigues said. 

Rodrigues said her two youngest children, ages 8 and 9, were suffering from depression last February when their Somerville public school was still learning remotely. Her 9-year-old one morning was in tears begging her to not make him go back on Zoom. She enrolled the kids in a local Catholic school, which was meeting in person, and their sparkle returned. “It was a life saver,” Rodrigues said. This year, her kids were in a good place emotionally, so seeking stability, she left them there.  

Last year, many public schools were hybrid or remote for much of the year, and some parents switched to private schools seeking in-person instruction. This year, public schools were required to return in person so there is less of a difference in education format – though a small number of students who preferred a virtual education may have left their district for an online program.  

But if students switched last year, they may have simply stayed where they were. A recent poll by the MassINC Polling Group, which has the same parent company as CommonWealth, found that private and Catholic school parents are more likely than public school parents to be satisfied with how their child’s school has navigated COVID. Private and Catholic school parents were more likely to report having access to small class sizes and personalized learning, more likely to believe their school was doing enough to help children catch up after COVID-related disruptions, and more likely to expect their child to be learning ahead of grade level by the end of the year. 

Maeve Duggan, research director at the MassINC Polling Group, said if kids made the switch last year, and parents report that it is going well, “It might be a situation of why rock the boat?” 

Paul Reville, a former state education secretary who is now a professor at Harvard, said many of the assumptions about kids returning assumed the pandemic would be over by now. With the Delta variant causing another surge in cases, “Some people are concerned about safety and they’re holding their children back,” Reville said. He said some parents probably liked whatever alternative they found last year – home schooling or private school. Reville noted that there are also demographic shifts resulting in fewer school-age children statewide. 

But Reville said it is “not a great sign for the mainstream public education system generally, because at some level a lot of people are voting with their feet.” Reville said parents are either expressing a lack of confidence in how their district is dealing with the pandemic, or they did not feel they were getting good services before and have found a better alternative.  

“It should make those of us in mainstream public education stand up and take stock and think about how we’re going to adapt more effectively to these circumstances to bring people back,” Reville said. 

Natasha Ushomirsky, state director for Massachusetts at the Education Trust, which advocates for poor students and students of colorsaid similarly that education leaders need to be reaching out to families to find out what isn’t working for them. One concern she has is that some students, rather than finding better alternatives, became disconnected entirely from school. While dropout numbers are not available, there are 3,496 fewer students in grades 10 to 12 this year, which represents the ages at which students can legally leave school. 

“Our schools and districts have just lost track of some of our kids, and it’s absolutely critical school districts work with community partners to find students, help bring them back, make sure they’re getting the supports they need at this time,” Ushomirsky said. 

Colin Jones, senior policy analyst at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, was one of the leading voices last spring calling on lawmakers not to use last year’s student enrollment numbers to set budgets for this year, on the assumption that many students would return. Jones said a big part of that assumption was that the pandemic would be over, which is not the case. He said it remains to be seen whether enrollment can rebound from the 37,000-student drop in 2020-2021. He said policymakers will probably have to wait until next year to see whether that drop is permanent or “is it that the pandemic just kept going much longer than we thought?”