The disappearance of students from NYC public schools has been one of the most devastating consequences of the pandemic, putting thousands of students at risk while creating financial chaos in the system.

Exclusive data obtained by The News shows the latest depths of those losses.

So far, more than 30 percent of students in a school district of roughly 900,000 children have been chronically absent this school year, while early figures show 121,000 fewer kids in kindergarten through 12th grade enrolled this fall than before the pandemic.

David Banks after he presented his vision for the New York City Public Schools at DOE Headquarters in Manhattan on Wednesday, March 2, 2022.

The ramifications have been felt across the public schools.

Children who missed significant classroom time during the pandemic have continued to fall behind in academics and in forming relationships with their peers and teachers. And in a system where funding is based on enrollment, the dwindling numbers have led to drastic cutbacks at the school level — leading principals to let go of teachers, and cancel arts and after-school programs.

“There is no silver bullet,” said Schools Chancellor David Banks in an exclusive interview with The News one year into his tenure, outlining his plans to reverse the trend. “Anybody that tells you otherwise is kidding you.”

As Banks puts it, a key element of his administration’s plans to convince parents to choose public schools involves listening to families, and introducing policies and programs he says will gain their trust. He told The News that students should feel connected to school and their teachers, and see relevancy in their coursework to their interests and potential careers, leading other families to follow.

On the ground, that also has meant supporting attendance teams in district offices and “canvassing campaigns” in neighborhoods with high rates of chronic absenteeism, or placing community groups in schools with low attendance rates to better try and address student needs.

Banks has also expanded programs with more applicants than seats, including accelerated programs for students in elementary and high schools, and special education programs for families otherwise considering private options.

The numbers tell a dire story.

Enrollment excluding preschool programs has plummeted by nearly 13 percent since the pandemic began, with the steepest drops during the years students learned remotely some or all of the time, according to preliminary data.

Enrollment fell again this fall, though at a slower rate than anticipated of 1.8 percent, due in no small part to the arrival of thousands of asylum-seeking children from the Southern border. Roughly 9,700 new students in temporary housing have enrolled since the summer.

Many have simply left the city. Close to 58,000 schoolkids were discharged from the Department of Education last school year to outside the city, which officials suspect was a delayed effect of the pandemic. Just a decade ago, roughly half that figure were leaving the local schools for other districts.

New York City Department of Education (DOE) Chancellor David Banks welcome students on the first day of school at P.S. 161 in the Bronx on  Sept. 8, 2022.

“What’s striking here is that the enrollment numbers haven’t bounced back from the large, pandemic exodus of kids from public schools,” said Thomas Dee, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education who studies enrollment trends. “It seems like enrollment losses like those seen in New York City are going to be enduring.”

Some of the top destinations for former city schoolkids were New Jersey and Long Island, with smaller number of families moving to nearby suburbs in Connecticut, and Westchester and Rockland counties. Large shares also moved to Florida and other Southern states — while Black students and children from low-income families were more likely to move to the South and many of the latter to Pennsylvania.

Some students left traditional public schools for private and religious schools, or charter schools — altogether, fewer than 29,000 children last school year. Home schooling has also seen a renaissance in New York City, with the number of students leaving the public system annually multiplying by 5 times over the last decade.

The number of new families enrolling has also declined during the pandemic, an indicator of falling birthrates and parents choosing other school types before kindergarten. Banks has tried giving families options within the system, such as bringing back accelerated programs for elementary schoolkids — while other parents have called for placing kids of all skills and abilities together in classrooms.

“I listened to families. And I listened to some families who indicated that we think Gifted and Talented on its face is racist and discriminatory and inequitable,” said Banks. “And then I listen to others who say, if we don’t have Gifted and Talented programs, they’re a draw for our family. You’re not leaving us many options that keep us in the system.”

“The decisions I make are not made by fear or threat that if I don’t do this, these families are going to leave,” he said, “but still trying to do the right thing for the majority of folks — and what I do think is the right thing to do.”

While the school system shrinks, another major problem is the students who have drifted away from school. Attendance took a major hit during the pandemic, but has yet to recover.

This school year 30.2 percent of students have been chronically absent so far, meaning they have missed 10 percent of available school days — compared to 39.5 percent a year ago, according to internal figures. By the end of last school year, roughly 41 percent of children had missed significant chunks of classroom time.

Before the pandemic, fewer than 1 in 4 students were considered chronically absent in a given school year.

Hedy Chang, the founder and executive director of the organization Attendance Works said chronic absenteeism has remained “persistently high” nationally, even as remote learning and the strict quarantine policies that led to missed school have been phased out.

“You have kids who might’ve failed a class last year, or didn’t learn key concepts — and it’s hard!” said Chang. “They’re still nervous and don’t have a routine in school, and may feel even more disconnected because they’re not feeling academically confident.”

To engage those children, Banks told The News “the best response to it is the return to normalcy.” And for now the public schools are sticking with that plan, even as cases of COVID in schools have ticked upward in recent weeks, plus newer threats of RSV and the flu.

“I talk to the teachers in the schools, I talk to the kids and I hear them reflect,” he said. “Less so than any specific initiative, it was purely the return to school, the routinization of being around the people who care deeply about you” that started to reverse the trends.

Banks that morning had visited the school of special education teacher Shelly Vilsaint, who taught at Frederick Douglass Academy III in the Bronx before she died in a fiery Cross Bronx Expressway collision last month. He said Vilsaint would visit children at their houses and encourage them to come to school, while the students said she made them believe in themselves and “not use the pandemic as an excuse” to slack off or skip class.

“This is an example of teachers matter deeply. It’s not just a nice thing,” he said. “Making sure that we are affirming those teachers and giving them the support that they need — that’s my job.”

Alongside teachers, the education officials have also tapped close to 80 local groups working citywide or in their neighborhoods to get kids back in schools, from Children’s Aid to Union Settlement, according to a list provided to The News.

The exodus of students from the city’s rosters have had massive implications for the students who remained as budgets have fallen as enrollment dwindles.

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Budget cuts this summer were a small share of the education department’s $31 billion allocation, but a large chunk of the funds schools’ decision-makers receive. Roughly three-quarters of principals faced cuts as they planned for this fall, with an average decrease of 8 percent, according to a city comptroller analysis.

The cuts were especially jarring after schools for most of the pandemic were held harmless for enrollment losses, using COVID stimulus to cover budget gaps and maintain stability. As federal aid is slated to expire, the current administration has begun slowly phasing out that policy.

“The funding that we have in our schools has never been enough,” said Banks. “You have to invoke the entire village for help.”

To address the shortfalls, Banks said his role as chancellor is to find local partners running programs that work, and build out a central team to connect school leaders with opportunities across the city.

“I don’t want somebody to say my budget got cut, that’s why I lost my art teacher,” said Banks. “There’s an art program right around the corner that can still do an art program for your kids, and it doesn’t even have to come out of your budget.”

And while schools’ hands are tied to an affordability crisis pushing many families out of their neighborhoods, and contributing to budget losses in a system that ties funding to enrollment, Banks told The News his long-term work is directly related to graduates’ success.

“What I can do is ensure that kids are graduating on a pathway to economic prosperity because they got real skills, real credentials. They will be able to take their rightful place in this 21st century economy,” said Banks. “That’s primarily my role.”

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