Brief Regional and Grade-Level Patterns of Pandemic Enrollment Declines in Hawai`i Public Schools
Mark Murphy, Kiley Oeda
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Hawai`i, like most other U.S. states, experienced a historic decline in public school enrollment in the 2020-21 school year following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, losing 4,627 (or 2.6 percent) students. Research suggests that the instructional format impacted school enrollment decisions during the 2020-21 school year, with the sharpest declines when instruction was remote only. However, new data from Fall 2021, after Hawai`i schools returned to in-person instruction, show that enrollment continued to decline.

Key Data

Data from Fall 2019 through Fall 2021 show:

  • Since the start of the pandemic, public school enrollment in Hawai`i declined by 4.3 percent.
  • O`ahu, which is home to approximately two-thirds of the student population statewide, lost 9.5 percent of public-school enrollment in grades K-4 and 3 percent in grades 5-8.
  • Across all island groups, declines were most severe for students in the youngest grades.
  • Charter schools experienced modest growth in enrollment during the pandemic, driven by student enrollment in grades 5-8 and 9-12 increasing by 4.5 and 6.5 percent, respectively.

Implications

Enrollment declines during both the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years in Hawai`i were widespread throughout the islands and were not exclusively concentrated in one region of the state. The enrollment losses in the 2021-22 school year indicate that the public-school enrollment drops continued despite the return to in-person instruction.

Further, the enrollment declines are most concentrated in the earliest grades, meaning that many of the state’s youngest students have experienced substantial changes to their learning environment in the wake of COVID-19. As a result, some students have likely missed key foundational skills and learning, which may serve as a long-term challenge for the state of Hawai`i and will likely result in classrooms where students have unusually disparate levels of academic preparation.

Additionally, since school funding is largely driven by annual student enrollment counts, the widespread declines may result in substantially reduced school budgets across the state. These enrollment changes could force heavily-impacted school sites to reduce or reassign instructional and non-instructional staff in order to reduce personnel expenses, despite the possible gaps in school preparation in younger students.

Policymakers should anticipate that instructional staff may need supplemental training and support for working in classroom environments where students have widely different levels of preparation. Additionally, they may need to implement targeted interventions aimed at enrolling eligible school-aged children in areas of the state that experienced the largest declines. Finally, policymakers may wish to enact funding protocols that help to smooth changes in funding over time in order to protect schools from volatile budgetary swings from one year to the next.

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Additional Resources

Research Areas Education
Tags K-12 education
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy
States Hawaii