Quarter of a Million Students Missing from Texas Public Schools
According to a new analysis of public data by Texas 2036, almost 250,000 students, representing four percent or more of all Texas students, are missing from Texas schools, and only two out of every five Texas students are receiving in-person instruction.
Based on a review of new data from the Texas Education Agency and Department of State Health Services, Texas 2036 has identified a number of trends regarding student enrollment and access to in-person instruction. According to the data, many Texas school districts face lower enrollments and millions of students—especially those from low-income communities—continue to have virtual and not in-person instruction.
Districts Across Texas See Student Enrollment Declines
Based on data from 99% of Texas school districts, there are a projected 242,000 fewer students enrolled in Texas public schools—including both in-person and remote learners—than there were last year. This would be a 4% decline in year-over-year student enrollment, unprecedented in a state that has long had one of the fastest-growing student populations in the nation.
Enrollment declines have been experienced by all types of districts: rich and poor, urban and rural. Of districts that reported data, 73% have seen declines in student enrollment from last year to this year.
These numbers are by no means definitive. Some districts have still not made their student data public, and this is only a snapshot of the first month of school. It is reasonable to expect that some families chose to wait to enroll children due to safety concerns and other uncertainties. Many families could have also turned to private schools or homeschooling for the fall semester or school year.
But still, these enrollment numbers raise serious questions for Texas leaders. Students without family or community supports may not be maximizing their potential when they are not enrolled in school. Likewise, outside of the classroom, many children are more at risk of hunger, trauma, and other negative experiences.
As a state, we should take this data extremely seriously and work to ensure that every child is enrolled in school or connected to high-quality learning opportunities.
In-Person Instruction Varies by Student Income and Geography
Texas 2036’s analysis of the TEA and DSHS data also reveals wide gaps in utilization of in-person instruction by student income and geography. Across Texas, only 41% of Texas students were receiving in-person instruction by the end of September. Texas’s poorest districts—those with 81-100% of students qualifying for free- or reduced-price lunch—turned almost exclusively to remote instruction (13% in-person). Middle- and high-income districts, on the other hand, returned to in-person instruction at much higher rates (half or more students are receiving in-person instruction). Similarly, only 25% of students in urban districts received in-person instruction, compared to more than two-thirds of students in rural districts and towns.
Uneven access to in-person instruction could have serious implications on student learning. Districts have had mixed success in transitioning to virtual learning and, paired with summer break, it appears that students have fallen far behind where they would have been in normal circumstances. In many cases, remote instruction has fallen short for students, in part due to difficulties in technology adoption and the distractions and inconsistencies related to learning from home. Perhaps more importantly, students from low-income and rural communities often lack access to internet or the devices needed for virtual learning. 
Statewide efforts, including Operation Connectivity, have successfully expanded internet access and provided devices to hundreds of thousands of Texas students; however, there are still thousands more – especially at younger ages – that cannot meaningfully or consistently participate in virtual learning.
Low-income students in Texas were already far behind peers in key academic benchmarks such as 3rd grade reading and 8th grade math. With the COVID-19 pandemic, these same students have been overwhelmingly left out of high-quality, in-person instruction, meaning that we can only assume that the already stark achievement gaps among student groups are growing wider.
A Wake-Up Call to New COVID Realities
Now more than ever, a high-quality education is critical to attaining a decent, living-wage job. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic has upended how education is delivered and, at more basic levels, to whom. Each school district will continue to need to make data- and science-driven decisions regarding the operational plans for their campuses, but such decisions should be made with an awareness of the remediation that may be necessitated to ensure all Texas students have equitable access to quality education.
If we fail to act decisively and strategically—identifying missing students, assessing and quantifying learning loss, maintaining high expectations, and offering quality learning opportunities and remediation, especially for our most vulnerable students—Texas will suffer the consequences for decades to come.