Where have all the kindergartners gone?
Pandemic leads parents to delay the official first year of school
This year’s kindergarten classes have numerous empty seats nationwide—and not just because the little learners are logging in from home.
“I was stressed about everything and then thought, Why does he need to start kindergarten?” said Claire Reagan of Olathe, Kan. “And it was like a weight was lifted.” The high school teacher’s 5-year-old has autism, and she worried he would struggle with pandemic stressors such as switching between virtual and in-person learning. Kansas is one of 35 states that do not require kindergarten, so Reagan felt free to make the choice.
Kindergarten enrollment rates have fallen nationwide as parents like Reagan wrestle with pandemic-related dilemmas. Many states are still finalizing pupil counts, but in Washington, kindergarten enrollment dropped by 14 percent overall or about 11,000 students. Individual cities reported downward trends, as well. Nashville, Tenn., public school kindergarten class lists were about 15 percent smaller, and some San Francisco Bay Area school districts reported losses of between 11 and 25 percent.
The reasons for giving these young students the year off traditional schooling vary. Some parents are wary of in-person instruction and the possibility of COVID-19 outbreaks, while others are equally skeptical about virtual learning for squirmy 4- to 6-year-olds. Many parents struggle with work responsibilities that make monitoring online learning for little ones impossible, and others simply don’t feel comfortable with any of the options available to them.
“They are thinking, I can’t work and monitor my child’s Zoom schooling,” said UCLA assistant professor of education Anna Markowitz. “Parents are really in an impossible situation.”
More parents are turning to homeschooling this year, as well. A Gallup poll taken at the end of July and beginning of August found 10 percent of parents said they planned to homeschool this year—double the percentage from last year.
As part of a project aimed at measuring the pandemic’s effects on young children and their families, University of Oregon researchers surveyed 1,000 parents in September, including nearly 250 with a kindergarten-age child. About 17 percent of those parents said they were delaying the start of their child’s schooling because of the pandemic. Safety and stress over managing their child’s online learning and their own work topped the list of reasons why. Researchers raised concerns about children falling behind.
“We think young kids are likely getting lost in the shuffle,” said psychology professor and project leader Phil Fisher.
Come next summer, families could opt to send their children to school as “red-shirt” kindergartners who start a year later than normal. The practice was popular even before the pandemic because it gives children the advantage of increased age and maturity heading into their school career. Others may choose to send their student straight into first grade. That choice is not as common, and many education experts caution against it if a child has not learned some of the foundational lessons of kindergarten—whether at home or in a school setting.
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