Maine schools saw their numbers decline by nearly 8,000 students between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, which worked out to a 4.4 percent decrease. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Maine’s drop in public school enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic was among the steepest declines in the nation, according to a report that found virtually every state saw fewer students during the recently completed school year.

Maine schools saw their numbers decline by nearly 8,000 students between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, which worked out to a 4.4 percent decrease, according to Maine Department of Education data.

That gave Maine the fourth largest percentage drop in the nation, according to a report from Education Week. Vermont had the highest rate, with a 5.3 percent drop, while Mississippi (5 percent) and New Hampshire (4.7 percent) also saw larger declines than Maine.

Many of those students transitioned to homeschooling, which saw a 5,000-student increase from 2020 to 2021, according to Department of Education data. Some others went without instruction. Maine students are not required to go to school until their sixth birthday, and prekindergarten and kindergarten were the grade levels with the largest percentage drops.

The decline was due to a combination of parental concern about safety during the pandemic and child care challenges, said Steve Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, which represents superintendents and school boards.

“There were many child care offerings that were not available,” Bailey said. “So, parents had to make a decision.”

Asked why Maine was hit harder than most of the U.S., he noted that Maine and Vermont tried hard to keep schools open, but that often meant adopting hybrid learning styles that made organizing child care more complex for parents.

Maine saw by far the most significant drop in age groups most likely to require child care. The state saw a 16 percent decline among prekindergarten and kindergarten students, compared with a 3 percent decline for all other students.

School systems are expecting many students to return for the 2021-22 school year as COVID-19 restrictions have mostly ended and high vaccination rates will make reopening schools safer and easier.

Maine schools are expected to be in-person and follow a regular schedule this fall, Bailey said, eliminating the factors that led many parents to pull their kids out of school last year. He cautioned that things could change if a COVID-19 variant emerges that leads to more cases and outbreaks.

Higher vaccination numbers among K-12 students could also help bring normalcy.

About half of all 12- to 19-year-olds have now received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention data, a number educators expect to rise by the time school resumes in the fall.

Children under 12 still aren’t eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations.

“Students 5 to 12 are in kind of a no man’s land,” Bailey said. “But for middle-school and high-school students, that should help greatly.”