Around 68,000 fewer students were enrolled in traditional public schools during the 2019-2020 school year, according to the latest average daily membership data from the North Carolina Department of Public Education.
The same data showed students attending charter schools across the state increased; adding around 7,000 more students between the 2019-20 to the 2020-21 school years. Similarly, North Carolina's virtual and cyber academy saw a slight increase in students.
Homeschooling also soared in popularity this past year, with a 20% increase in enrollment, according to data analyzed from the North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education.
Seventh-grader Katie Austin is one of the students who opted out of public school at the start of last school year.
"We kind of decided that with the pandemic this was the perfect time to switch over to homeschooling. It's kind of something we went back and forth but working a full-time job it's kind of hard to incorporate both of those," said Katie's mother Karen Goeke-Austin.
When Goeke-Austin was able to work from home, it created the perfect opportunity to open the family's homeschool, they coined 'Mountain View Academy.'
"I think in one way the pandemic was a blessing for our family because it did allow me to work from home so we could do this. I was really nervous about her going back to public school in 6th grade because she was so far behind and the schools just weren't catching her up," Goeke-Austin said.
She said that Katie struggled in public school for years due to her dyslexia, but is now thriving at home.
"I also noticed as her confidence gained so did her scores. She was struggling to hang on in public school and so this allowed her to finally take it at her own pace, absorb what she was learning and then her tests scores reflected it," Goeke-Austin said.
Katie is in homeschool again this school year and said she would like to be homeschooled 'forever.'
If these 60,000 students stay out of the state's public school system forever, districts will take a financial hit. In North Carolina, enrollment numbers translate into state funding, so fewer students mean fewer dollars.
This past year, North Carolina legislators decided to not penalize districts for enrollment drops this past year but many worry what the impacts will be moving forward.
"If we ultimately don't get the funding that's anticipated based on the projections that we have. Then, it could end up meaning that positions and other aspects that need to be cut," said Dr. Mary Ann Wolf, the president and executive director of Public School Forum of North Carolina.
Wolf said lawmakers are still working on a state budget and haven't decided how enrollment will factor in this year.
Research from the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina (EPIC) on this decline also suggested "changes in enrollment for particular groups of students may also cause imbalances in certain grade levels, affect racial and socioeconomic segregation, slow educations progress and lead some students to become disconnected from school."
The research found enrollment loss was larger in the urban and least economically distressed districts. Schools with the fewest students of color and highest state report cards also had larger declines, according to the study.
"It's certainly worrisome to see a shift as students for higher-income students and white students out of the school district because you know we want to keep those families engaged in the school system, and really having a stake in the success of our public schools," said Dr. Sarah Fuller, who worked on the research.
Fuller and others said it is too soon to tell just how much of the enrollment changes seen over the last year will stick. She pointed to an increase in students opting for charter and homeschooling even before the pandemic.
"It may be that this is an acceleration of trends that we were seeing already and so that you know that kind of leads you towards thinking maybe some of this will stick. But, undoubtedly, we'll see many of the students who moved into homeschooling come back into the public schools in the next year," Fuller said.
A lot of the decline in enrollment was seen at the kindergarten level. Now districts are preparing for a potential surge at that level as parents who opted to hold their 5-year-old back last year, may be more comfortable having them start school.
A spokesperson for Durham Public Schools said the district is expecting around 32,300 students to be enrolled this year; an increase of around 1,500 students. The district lost around 1,800 students over the last year.
"These are unprecedented times, people are making the decisions that are best for their children's academic and social, emotional, and health needs. And so it is really important to our communities that we have strong public school systems that people are invested in, and COVID-19 has been a challenge," said DPS spokesperson Chip Sudderth.
The district has hosted multiple outreach events to connect with the community and to help families feel comfortable about returning.
Wake County is also expecting more students to return to public school.
"The expectation is that enrollment will definitely be higher than last year in terms of in-person enrollment, but honestly it's still a moving target," said Keith Poston, president of Wake Ed. "If you'd asked me this question six weeks ago, I would have had a different answer."
As the Delta variant spreads, the future of public schools remain even more uncertain.
"Until we get COVID completely under control that's going to keep having a negative impact on our students in terms of their learning and their ability to go back into the classroom," Poston said.
Enrollment data for this school year won't be formally released until a few months from now.
The North Carolina House of Representatives is expected to release its proposed budget this week that will give better insight into the financial impact enrollment loss could have this upcoming year.