Comprehensive national data aren’t available yet, but reporting by NPR and our member stations, along with media reports from around the country, shows enrollment declines in dozens of school districts across 20 states. Large and small, rich and poor, urban and rural — in most of these districts the decline is a departure from recent trends. Over the past 15 years, data from the U.S. Education Department show that small and steady annual increases in public school enrollment have been the rule.

Six months after schools around the country shut their doors amid coronavirus lockdowns, these fall enrollment declines come as schools have been scrambling to improve remote learning offerings, and to adopt safety procedures to allow buildings to open for in-person classes, sometimes just a few days a week. In many parts of the country the start of the year has been marked by multiple changes in plans, widespread confusion among teachers and families, deep concerns about safety, and worries about unequal access to technology.

“We are not alone in this,” Chris Reykdal, Washington State’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, said in a statement this week announcing a 2.82% decrease in enrollment statewide, driven by a 14% drop in kindergarten. “As our nation continues to fight the spread of COVID-19, states across the country are seeing changes in K–12 enrollment as families make decisions about the safest and most effective learning environments for their children.”