Big Steps Backward for Early Learning

Written by: Reagan Flowers, PhD

Having passed the sixth-month of the impacts of COVID-19, we’ve now seen schools close and reopen. We’ve seen the cancellation of standardized tests. We’ve seen parents and students struggling to keep up and get the resources they need, especially the most economically disadvantaged families and minorities. Now we’re seeing something new, and equally concerning — students who aren’t beginning school at all.

At the beginning of this school year, Kindergarten enrollment rates were down across the country. In Los Angeles alone, there are 6,000 less kindergartners this year. As we’ve discussed before, areas with the lowest incomes and least resources are struggling the most, and that’s where enrollment is declining most.

It’s not just Los Angeles. Across the country, many kindergarten classes are down by about 10%. Whether in Florida or Hawaii, again the highest drop rates are happening in the schools with the most low-income students.

Why Kindergarteners Aren’t Starting School

In any journey, getting off to a good start sets the stage for success. With so many children not starting at all, it could signal a lot of trouble ahead. The exact reasons for enrollment decline haven’t been determined yet, but it’s safe to assume what some of them could be. First, many parents are too busy working to be able to oversee remote learning. That is assuming they have the resources to take advantage of remote learning. Second, some parents likely do not trust that the schools are safe, despite enforcement of cleaning standards, hand washing and mask wearing.

Many parents are trying to keep themselves and their kids safe. With so many out of work due to the pandemic, many are just trying to keep it all together. However, making the decision to not enroll in school could send unintended messages to young children. It is possible that they could begin to see school as too difficult to succeed or unsafe.

Why Kindergarten is so Important

Studies have shown that the more you learn in kindergarten, the higher chance you have for later success. This includes a greater probability of attending college, making a higher income.

Kindergarten is about so much more than just book learning. The hands-on activities like learning how to socialize and collaborate, how to communicate and how to follow a schedule are crucial to a young child’s development.

Unfortunately, many schools are still online only, but this is better than no Kindergarten at all. The average attention span of a 6-year-old is just 12-18 minutes, so being online all day is rough. However, teachers and parents need to work together to find solutions instead of just skipping school altogether.

Is Skipping Kindergarten an Option

Only 18 states require students to attend Kindergarten. However, like any other grade, there is a set of educational standards for Kindergarten that outlines what they should know after completing the year.

Therefore, unless parents are actively making efforts to teach these lessons at home, students may be up to a full year behind once they get to first grade. On top of that they won’t be up to speed on expectations, including what behavior and communication styles are considered acceptable at school.

First grade already involves a lot of transition. For some students, they are going from half days to full days. In many cases, they are increasing the amount they are expected to learn. Imagine how frustrating it is to go from no school to full-time first grade and be a year behind the others. For disadvantaged students, who already struggle with not having what they need, imagine how frustrating this will be.

Has This Happened Before

It’s difficult to look at the decline in kindergarten enrollment from a historical perspective, as many states did not require kindergarten attendance until the 1990s. As I mentioned before, some still do not.

However, I can say with confidence that this situation is rare. For example, enrollment in Utah’s public K-12 schools has declined for the first time in 20 years. Unfortunately, the results of this will, down the line, give us hard numbers on the impacts of skipping kindergarten. We already know the positive effects of a quality kindergarten education; therefore the drastic opposite, no kindergarten education, is likely to be extremely harmful.

What Enrollment Declines Mean for the Future

Some parents may choose to pursue homeschooling. This requires no training, and though these parents still give it their best effort, it’s still likely these kids will be behind when they get to first grade.

Others, like the economically disadvantaged families we serve here at C-STEM, will opt to just wait until first grade. They simply don’t have the resources, technology or time to serve as parent, income earner and teacher.

Teachers need to be prepared for this reality, and how they will be able to help these students while still serving the students who did attend kindergarten. Once COVID-19 subsides, supplementary programs like after school help and summer camps will be more needed than ever.

It’s been a trying year for everyone, and all of us in the educational community need to work together. We need to keep making sure our least advantaged students are not only keeping up, but excelling. We also need to put concrete plans in place, so that we are prepared should anything like this happen again.