(CALmatters) – California’s public schools lost more than 160,000 students amid the pandemic, the largest enrollment drop in two decades and a likely harbinger of serious educational and financial challenges.

The sharp 2.6% decline, announced Thursday by the California Department of Education, doesn’t capture the full effects of the pandemic. The enrollment tally comes from a one-day headcount in October and doesn’t include students who may have left the public school system afterward. But the drop is already steeper than the 155,000-student decline state officials were projecting in January. And it’s disproportionately affecting the state’s youngest students: 88% of the drop occurred in kindergarten to sixth grade, while public preschool enrollment fell by more than 6,000 students.

  • State Superintendent Tony Thurmond“While there are many reasons to stay optimistic that enrollment will rebound as conditions improve … we must also help schools identify opportunities to engage with families who either sought new options for their students during the pandemic or need additional resources and support.”

California’s public school enrollment was already decreasing before the pandemic, partly due to slowing population growth. But it also appears that many parents decided to pull their kids out of public school as the Golden State continued to offer its students the least amount of in-person learning in the country. Charter schools saw their enrollment jump by more than 15,000 students amid the pandemic, according to state data. Meanwhile, some families decided to hold off on school altogether. Potentially tens of thousands more children than usual will enter first grade next school year without having been through kindergarten, stretching an already strained system even tighter.

  • Lorin Yin, a San Francisco public school parent“There’s no version of this where we would have voluntarily left the school. I feel pushed out of the school system. I feel like I’m not fleeing it, I feel like I’m being kicked out.”

Districts aren’t at risk of losing state funding due to declining enrollment until the 2022-23 school year. But after that, smaller rosters could cause state funding to drop by $10,000 per student or more.