Returning to the classroom

The pandemic pushed some students out of Washington's schools.
New data tells us who left.

Students pass a school bus after being dropped off Sept. 17, 2021 at Rising Star Elementary School. (Daniel Kim / The Seattle Times)
Students pass a school bus after being dropped off Sept. 17, 2021 at Rising Star Elementary School. (Daniel Kim / The Seattle Times)

When the coronavirus pandemic first emerged in the U.S. in early 2020 and forced shutdowns in schools across the nation, most experts assumed that in-person learning would be paused for only a few weeks. Instead, it took many months before children returned to the classroom — and in the Seattle area, it took more than a year. Teachers and districts scrambled to put together online learning, often with little or no training on what works best.

What happened to children during that year of virtual schooling? Educators still don’t have a good measure of how they fared academically, because standardized testing and even simple screening tools to measure specific skills, like reading comprehension, were put on hold. But evidence suggests that students lagged academic expectations by several months or more, and that there were sharp increases in the number of students who failed courses, especially among students from low-income households and students of color.

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Many students, especially those from low-income households, struggled with internet access, making it difficult for them to attend virtual school. Children whose parents had to report to work in person were left with a patchwork of caregiving arrangements. Thousands of homeless children in Washington disappeared from school enrollment counts, even as homelessness grew around the Puget Sound area. The pandemic was especially hard on children with learning disabilities, and some districts — like Seattle — were called out by the state superintendent’s office for doing a poor job of supporting those students.

Select a topic below to see data and charts
The pandemic pushed some kids out of public schools last year
K-12 Enrollment
About 4% fewer kids went to school in 2020-21.
For-profit schools
Enrollment up 35% in a year.
School reopenings
More conservative areas offered in‑school learning first.
Fewer kids in class
Between 2019-20 and 2020-21, the number of kids enrolled in Washington public schools dropped by 4%. The youngest children were most likely to stay out of school, experiencing a kind of "redshirt year."

Enrollment by vulnerable population
At a time when homelessness was growing, the number of homeless children enrolled in school shrank statewide.

Enrollment by educational service district
Washington is divided geographically into nine educational service districts. The districts in the far west and far east sides of the state — including big cities like Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane and Vancouver — saw the biggest enrollment dips.
less than -6%
-6 to -4.1%
-4 to to -2.1%
-2 to -0.1%
0 to 2%
For-profit schools
Private online schools saw big enrollment increases in the 2020-21 school year. Some critics worry these schools are poorly regulated and provide an inferior education.

Percent change in enrollment in Alternative Learning Experience programs, by grade
Enrollment in Alternative Learning Experience programs, such as online schools, jumped significantly in grades K-4 from the 2019-20 to the 2020-21 school year. ALE programs were particularly popular among families with younger children. Overall, enrollment was about 35% higher in January 2021 than it was in January 2020.

School districts with biggest head count increases in alternative learning programs
All five districts with the greatest head count increases during the pandemic contract with for-profit online education providers, as noted in parentheses.

The 5 districts with the most online learners
This chart shows the districts with the most students enrolled in Alternative Learning Experience programs in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years. In Omak, enrollment nearly doubled. Enrollment through four other school districts showed more modest growth. At least three of the five districts contract with for-profit online education companies, as noted in parentheses.
In-person learning more common in conservative, white and rural parts of Washington
As of March 8, prior to Gov. Jay Inslee's order that all schools reopen, more students were attending school in person if they lived in a county where President Donald Trump won a majority of votes in the 2020 election. In-person learning was also more common in rural districts and those where a majority of students are white.
Students attending in person

Many low-income students aren't going to college during the pandemic
Community colleges
Enrollment dropped about 18%.
Student financial aid completion
Completion rates declined.
Income over time
People with a bachelor’s degree earn twice as much as those without a high school diploma.
Community colleges
Many low-income students start higher education at one of Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges. Those colleges saw enrollments decline sharply in 2020-21.

Seattle-area colleges
Here’s how much enrollment dropped at the 12 community and technical colleges in the greater Seattle region.
Student financial aid completion
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid unlocks financial aid dollars for students — as long as they fill it out and qualify. But Washington students have often lagged the nation in completing the form.

Washington applications for college financial aid are at lowest level in five years
Students still have months to complete financial aid forms, but as of May 2021, completed forms had declined from past years.

Washington English learners and special education students lag behind peers in completing federal financial aid forms
In the 2019-20 school year, migrant students and those who experienced homelessness or are from low-income homes also lagged behind the state's average.

In 2019-20, Black and Asian students exceeded Washington's average financial aid completion rate
Washington officials are now collecting demographic data on students who complete financial aid forms. Last school year, American Indian/Alaskan Native students lagged behind their peers.
Postsecondary training leads to better, more secure jobs
People with college degrees earn more money and are more likely to remain employed than those who never earn a degree after high school.

When unemployment numbers skyrocketed during the start of the pandemic, people who held a bachelor’s degree or higher were less likely to lose their jobs.
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Reporting: Hannah Furfaro and Dahlia Bazzaz

Graphics: Lauren Flannery

Design and development: Lauren Flannery

Editing: Richard Wagoner, Katherine B. Long, Emily M. Eng and Frank Mina