Public schools face a funding ‘death spiral’ as enrollment falls during remote learning.

Public schools in many parts of the country are headed for a financial cliff, as the coronavirus drives up the costs of education while tax revenue and student enrollment continue to fall.

Schools can expect about $54 billion from the coronavirus stimulus plan approved by Congress late Monday night. But officials say that’s not nearly enough to make up for the crushing losses state and local budgets have suffered during the pandemic, or the costs of both remote learning and attempts to bring students back to classrooms.

Advocates for public education estimate that schools have lost close to $200 billion so far.

“We’re going to need way more investment both in the short term, to deal with Covid, and in the long term,” said Chip Slaven, a lobbyist for the National School Boards Association.

The pandemic has already forced schools across the country to fire nonunion employees, spending the money instead on remote learning technology, retrofitting buildings, testing and surveillance programs, and other coronavirus-related expenses. Education has been among the hardest hit parts of the economy, according to an analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts, with employment down 8.8 percent in October from the year before and lower than at any point in the past two decades — a loss of millions of jobs.

The fiscal crisis is looming at a time when families fed up with pandemic-era education have increasingly turned to private and charter schools or chosen to educate their children at home. That’s potentially a major drain on public school budgets, because most states base school funding at least in part on enrollment numbers.

The school boards association estimated that as many as three million students — about 6 percent of the public school population — are not in classes right now, and that number could grow.

“We’ll have to see how many of those folks come back home after normalcy can be achieved,” said David Adkins, the executive director and chief executive of the Council of State Governments. But if the pandemic accelerates an exodus of affluent families from the public school system, he said, he fears the loss of enrollment and political support could trigger a “death spiral,” further weakening public schools at a time when poor and disadvantaged students are already lagging.

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