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.


The coronavirus bottom line: As of Thursday, California had 3,624,838 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 59,992 deaths (+0.2% from previous day), according to a CalMatters tracker.

California has administered 26,823,157 vaccine doses, and 33.9% of Californians are fully vaccinated.

Plus: CalMatters regularly updates this pandemic timeline tracking the state’s daily actions. We’re also tracking the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations by county and lawsuits against COVID-19 restrictions.

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1. Bonta confirmed as attorney general

Assemblymember Rob Bonta has been confirmed as the new California Attorney General. In his confirmation hearings, Bonta vowed to take a tougher hand in policing the police. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
Assemblymember Rob Bonta has been confirmed as the new California Attorney General. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

The Legislature on Thursday confirmed Assemblymember Rob Bonta as California’s next attorney general, positioning the state to take a markedly different approach to criminal justice than it did under now-U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. In his confirmation hearings, Bonta vowed to take a tougher hand in policing the police by thoroughly investigating deadly officer shootings of unarmed civilians, releasing misconduct records and pursuing civil rights probes of local law enforcement agencies, CalMatters’ Robert Lewis reports. The Alameda Democrat also pledged to rebuild trust between law enforcement and communities of color in the wake of ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin being convicted of murder in the death of George Floyd and a surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans. Bonta, one of the Assembly’s most progressive lawmakers, also voiced support for a pending bill he co-wrote that would allow the state to decertify officers for misconduct.

  • Bonta: “California talks often about how we lead, we’re first, we’re bold. Not when it comes to decertification. This is not — should not be — a controversial concept that we’re talking about.”

2. CA set to regain power to regulate car pollution

Image via iStock

California appears poised to regain its unique authority to set its own vehicle emissions standards after the U.S. Department of Transportation on Thursday announced plans to roll back portions of a Trump-era rule that the Golden State had been fighting in court. The proposed change, which is subject to a 30-day comment period, would also permit California to require car companies sell more electric vehicles. The move signals that the Biden administration is likely to institute tougher federal fuel economy rules — and all signs indicate California will have a big seat at the negotiating table. Newsom joined 11 other governors Wednesday in calling on Biden to ban new gas-powered cars by 2035 — a goal Newsom set for the Golden State last year. One indication that the letter won’t go unnoticed: General Motors, which originally supported the Trump administration’s legal battle against California’s fuel economy standards, dropped the lawsuit in November and announced plans in January to only sell zero-emission vehicles by 2035.

3. UC, CSU to require vaccines

An informational sign posted outside a vaccination clinic at Sacramento State on Jan. 29, 2021. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

The University of California and California State University systems unveiled plans Thursday to require students, faculty and staff who use campus facilities this fall to be immunized against COVID-19 once the vaccines receive full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The proposal — which includes exemptions based on medical or religious grounds — applies to more than 1 million people, making it the largest higher-education vaccination policy in the nation. The news came the same day that Stanford announced vaccines were mandated for all students returning to campus in the fall — with medical and religious exemptions — regardless of whether the vaccines receive FDA approval beyond emergency use authorization. (UC and CSU said in February such a requirement could raise legal issues.)

As California’s coronavirus rate drops to the lowest in the continental U.S., demand for vaccine appears to be withering across the state. But gaps persist: The Golden State ranks 45th nationally when it comes to vaccinating its most vulnerable communities, according to a recent analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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CalMatters commentary

Getting through drought: Coupling critical infrastructure investments with recent water management and planning improvements — based on lessons from 2014-15 — will help us better manage through 2021, argues Chandra Chilmakuri of the State Water Contractors.

Building a stronger workforce: I support Assembly Bill 628 because it would support individuals who face systemic employment barriers by providing them with training and education programs aligned with regional needs, writes Zima Creason of the California EDGE Coalition.

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Other things worth your time

San Francisco debates controversial homeless proposal to make city provide shelter to all. // San Francisco Chronicle

Skid row skeptical of judge’s order to sweep homeless people into shelters. // Los Angeles Times

Report: Number of new homeless people in county doubled in 2020. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Mayor Breed wants an answer from Biden administration: Are sanctioned drug use sites legal? // San Francisco Chronicle

Some of the biggest names in the California GOP are staying quiet on the Newsom recall. // Sacramento Bee

Caitlyn Jenner has infrequently voted. Now she might run for office. // Politico

How Los Angeles’ Brentwood school became a battleground in the culture wars. // Los Angeles Magazine

Los Angeles City Council votes to make plastic utensils only available upon request. // Daily News

Forest Service logging challenged in California lawsuit to protect endangered mammal. // Sacramento Bee

Should California protect forest fire ‘burn bosses’ from lawsuits? // Sacramento Bee

Photos: Here’s what Yosemite looks like one year after the animals took over. // Los Angeles Times

Gerald Haslam, chronicler of rural California life, dies at 84. // Los Angeles Times

See you Monday.

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Emily Hoeven wrote the daily WhatMatters newsletter for three years at CalMatters . Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco...