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Where are all the kindergartners? Pandemic creates rare gap year


SACRAMENTO — Amy Neier carefully wrote “first day of kindergarten” on a whiteboard and posed her 5-year-old son Hunter with the sign to capture the milestone she had long waited for.

Then Hunter headed off for another year of preschool instead.

Neier and parents across the nation are skipping kindergarten in droves during the most tumultuous school year in generations. Frustrated by the thought of sticking their 5-year-olds in front of screens during the pivotal first year of school, they are sending their children to extended preschool, forming learning pods or foregoing formal instruction altogether.

“I thought my tears would be because I was sending my baby to school, not because I was worrying if the decision to keep him out of school this year was the wrong one,” said Neier, who lives in Peoria, Ariz.

Given the choice, parents have sought alternatives, especially essential workers who need child care to stay employed. Teachers are doing their best to keep their students’ attention — but also would prefer to return to their classrooms whenever conditions are safe. School administrators are imploring families to enroll their kindergartners, fearing a loss of attendance-based dollars.

And while affluent families can still find ways to give their 5-year-olds enrichment activities, low-income children may be losing out on a full year of instruction they would have received otherwise.

“Some parents are leaving their kids in their current pre-K or child care programs but a lot of parents don’t have that option, so where are these kids?” said Patricia Lozano, executive director of Early Edge California. “Kindergarten is not mandatory so some parents think it’s not a big deal. It is. A year for a 5-year-old is a long time.”

Kindergarten has long been romanticized as the magical bridge from early childhood to formal instruction, intertwining math and reading fundamentals with school socialization. The best-selling 1986 book “All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten” appealed to the popular notion that the first year in school is foundational for life.

While most states don’t require kindergarten enrollment, the grade level is historically well attended. More than 80 percent of age-appropriate children were enrolled in a full-day kindergarten program in 2018, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But overwhelmed parents don’t see virtual kindergarten as the same.

Distance learning is especially difficult for young children, who need more personal attention. Essential workers and low-income families who can’t afford to stay home to supervise lessons are making tough decisions, including redshirting their children for a year with the hopes that campuses will reopen in 2021.

In some areas that have reopened schools, parents are afraid to send their kindergartners to campus due to health risks for their children or family members at home. But they also see little upside to wrangling their 5-year-olds onto Zoom each morning.

While K-12 enrollment has gradually decreased in recent years with birth rates on the decline, the latest kindergarten numbers are abnormally low. Schools from coast to coast are warning of the implications of skipping kindergarten, with marked drops in California, Florida, Texas, Iowa and Georgia. It is hard to say for sure how many American children are skipping kindergarten because states are still compiling enrollment totals as the school year gets underway.

The California Department of Education has not yet released statewide enrollment data but districts across the state have reported unusual drops. At Los Angeles Unified, the second largest district in the country, kindergarten enrollment has decreased by nearly 6,000 students. At Fresno Unified, the state’s third largest district, kindergarten and transitional kindergarten enrollment has dropped by 1,000 since last fall. Long Beach Unified, the state’s fourth largest, has seen a drop of about 700.

South Carolina resident Amy Hayes’ school district is offering online learning and two days a week in person. She opted out of both for her son, and paid $70 to join a homeschool association to avoid signing a waiver acknowledging that he skipped kindergarten. She worried it would become a permanent part of his academic record.

Online kindergarten would be “developmentally devastating” for her 5-year-old, Hayes said, and she wouldn’t be able to properly help him.

“I would have to sit there with him all day to make him do it. I don’t have the luxury of sitting all day in kindergarten,” she said.

It’s not just hard on students and parents. Videos of kindergarten teachers working hard to keep youngsters’ attention on the screen and dancing, singing and going above and beyond in distance learning have shown the difficulties of virtual instruction for the country’s youngest students.

“The problem is it’s too difficult for the kids and it’s too difficult for the teachers,” said Pat Gardner, president of the Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association in Florida. In Sarasota County, kindergarten enrollment is down by more than 16 percent.

While virtual kindergarten is far from ideal, early education advocates are urging parents to enroll anyways.

The benefits of preschool and kindergarten have long been touted, with an emphasis on the importance of the first five years of learning on cognitive and social emotional development. Research has linked successful early education to higher high school graduation and college-going rates and a slew of social-emotional benefits that jumpstart a child’s life.

Some school districts and private schools have acknowledged that the earliest grades need in-person instruction the most and have prioritized kindergarten as the first cohort to bring back on campus when they reopen.

“The first five years are so incredibly important in terms of brain development and as a base for lifelong learning and success in school,” said Erin Dubey, an education administrator for First 5 California, which has been urging families to enroll in kindergarten. “When you have children on Zoom for hours a day it is quite a predicament, but we really think the experience of kindergarten is so hugely valuable. We want to see kids remain enrolled in school, albeit an unusual setting.”

While research shows that kindergarten is beneficial for all kids, civil rights advocates are especially concerned that at-risk students will be hurt most by the lost year. In normal years, kindergarten is often the introduction to a new community and support network, with open houses and welcoming teachers and resources.

“Our low-income families, our families with limited English abilities, they are more likely to have other stressors compounding the situation with Covid. They’re not going to be able to reach out to school districts and be proactive. They’re worried about getting food on the table,” Dubey said. “I think that it’s going to create a broader opportunity gap for some of the children that we are most concerned about missing out.”

School districts are worried about another impact of underenrollment: funding losses.

In Georgia, Clayton County Superintendent Morcease Beasley urged parents to enroll their children even though it is not legally required because their children’s schools could lose funding next year. The district’s kindergarten enrollment is down by more than 500 students.

“Where are the rest of you? I need you all in kindergarten,” Beasley said at a press conference on Tuesday. “Just because it’s not a law for you to come, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to come. Everything that you need to do is not a law. Some things you need to do because it’s the best thing and the right thing to do, so please.”

But the most essential benefits of kindergarten cannot be learned on a screen, said Gloria Corral, President and CEO of the Parent Institute for Quality Education.

When children cry and see that their peers in a classroom are not crying, they learn to self soothe, she said. When a teacher is there to correct their handwriting, they learn to fail — and to persevere. Kindergarten is not just about learning the ABCs but about establishing a routine, learning to share and to trust caring adults — things that are easier in classrooms.

“I think some of us think about screen time so much because we want to focus our kids’ attention on the academics, but it has to be grounded in the relationship,” said Corral, who has worked in early education for 14 years and has two young children. “With this age group, it’s about open ended questions and exploring and testing things out.”

Corral worries most that at-home environments are not equal, especially during the pandemic.

“Families are living in very stressful contexts, some more than others,” she said. “It will impact how children go back to school, whatever that means and whenever that is.”

Andrew Atterbury contributed to this report.

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