TRENTON – Enrollment in New Jersey public schools has dropped to its lowest level in 20 years, as the pandemic particularly pummeled the number of children registered in younger grades, according to data published by the state Department of Education.

The number of students enrolled as of mid-October was 1,334,544, a level not seen since the 2000-01 school year. That was 41,285 fewer students than a year earlier, a decline of 3%.

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The biggest declines were in pre-kindergarten, which was down about 7,600 students or 17%, and kindergarten, which was down about 8,850 or 10%. Other elementary and middle school grades were down around 3% overall, while the year-over-year total in high school grades was little changed.

Cecilia Zalkind, president and chief executive officer of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, said it’s hard to draw conclusions from the data but noted that preschool enrollment is not mandatory where school districts offer it, as they must if they receive early-childhood aid from the state.

“And I think for parents that was a challenge: What would remote learning look like in a preschool classroom I think was one issue, and the second issue was even in those schools that were opened, some hesitation about sending their child to school for safety reasons,” Zalkind said.

Pre-K enrollment in public schools dropped from 45,013 last school year to 37,417. Kindergarten enrollment fell from 90,818 in October 2019 to 81,969 in October 2020. A majority of programs are full-day, but those that are half-day programs saw enrollment drops that were twice as large.

“Remote learning is difficult. But when you talk about a child that young where the learning is interactive, it’s a lot harder,” Zalkind said.

The Census Bureau’s experimental Household Pulse Survey showed a substantial increase in the number of New Jersey households with school-aged children reporting homeschooling, up from 4.7% around the start of May to 10.7% as of early October.

Data is available from the state for public schools, not for private and parochial schools.

If classes are tracked from one grade to the next – such as, comparing the 4th graders in 2019-20 with the 5th graders of 2020-21 – the only grade where enrollment grew from year to year was the current 9th grade class.

The enrollment change was most pronounced among white students, down 5.5%. Declines were smaller among students identified as Black, down 1.7%, Hispanic, down 1.3%, and Asian, down 1.3%. The count of students identified as multiracial increased by 4.4%.

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The number of students enrolled in free or reduced-price lunch programs declined by 10%, from 525,282 in 2019-20 to 472,657 this year. Zalkind said that between students not enrolled and schools making all families eligible for school meals with federal help, the number could use an asterisk.

“I don’t think it’s a reliable number,” Zalkind said. “I think when we are back in school full-time and the formal program of school lunch starts up again, my guess is we are going to see more kids eligible.”

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