Enrollment in preschool and kindergarten fell dramatically during the pandemic. Suzanne Perez of the Kansas News Service reports that many of those kids are in classrooms this year for the first time, and teachers notice a difference.
By Suzanne Perez
WICHITA, Kansas — Armstrong Drees could have gone to kindergarten last year. He didn’t. His mom, Lindsay, worried about COVID-19 outbreaks, particularly before a vaccine was available for the adults and teens around him. She briefly tried remote school, which was an option last year in the Wichita suburb of Goddard. Ultimately, she decided to keep the 6-year-old home an extra year. This fall, like a number of Kansas kindergartners and first-graders, he’s experiencing school for the first time. “There is no right decision,” said Lindsay Drees, a mother of four.
“Keeping them home is bad for their mental health,” she said. “Sending them to school is dangerous. They can get sick. ... You know you can’t get it right, so you just do the best you can.”
Lots of Kansas families opted not to send their preschoolers and kindergartners to school last fall. Kindergarten enrollment dropped by about 9% statewide. Preschool enrollment dropped nearly 21%. That means this year’s kindergartners — if they even returned to classrooms this fall — are starting from behind. In a typical year, more than half the students in Lisa Reeb’s kindergarten class at Wichita’s Colvin Elementary School would have a year of preschool behind them. They would know how to take turns, cut paper, line up for lunch, count to 10, and recognize at least some of the alphabet. This fall, only four of Reeb’s 17 students attended preschool at Colvin.
“There has been a noticeable difference in what kids are able to do,” Reeb said. “They don’t know that they have to leave Mom on the first day, and that is kind of a scary situation for some of them. They don’t know how to even go to the bathroom, because they’re not familiar with the school bathrooms here. They’re just kind of lost a little bit because it’s a whole new experience.”
Amanda Petersen, the director of early childhood programs for the Kansas Department of Education, said children’s first years of school can set a course for their overall education. Kids who attend preschool are more likely to graduate and attend college. They’re less likely to be arrested or struggle with substance abuse. “Quality early experiences make a huge difference,” she said. “We have a tremendous body of research that tells us that early childhood experiences are a critical period of brain development.”
It’s too soon to tell whether last year’s enrollment declines were a one-time blip or if they’ve stretched into this fall, as schools continue to struggle with COVID-19 outbreaks and quarantines. Kansas districts will report their official headcounts Sept. 20. It’s also unclear how many kids who missed kindergarten last year will skip straight to first grade. Kindergarten is not required in Kansas. Petersen said her staff will continue to monitor trends and urge districts to pay special attention to the needs of their youngest students. “It’s so important that schools use their relief funding and other resources available to make sure that they can provide support to those early elementary teachers and students who have experienced disruptions over this last year,” she said.
Wichita, the state’s largest district, hired two full-time staff members to visit area preschools and day care centers and meet with families who didn’t enroll their youngsters last fall. The goal: Get kids back into schools. Reeb said teaching kindergarten during the pandemic required adapting to new routines and restrictions, and that continues to prove handy. “Not having as many kids where we thought they would be when they came in — we were kind of prepared for that,” she said. “If you prepare yourself mentally, you don’t set yourself up for failure. You have to think positively and kind of go forward that way.”
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW, and High Plains Public Radio. It reports on health, the many factors that influence it and their connection to public policy. Find more at the Kansas News Service website.