Ann Crisp says her family tried doing “Zoom-school” for their 5-year-old son Lennon earlier this year, but it just didn’t work.
She works at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so she set her son up in front of a computer next to her desk to make sure he paid attention during class. But her son has minor speech and motor skill delays, and it was frustrating for him to sit through three 45-minute online sessions, she says.
“Because of his delays, even following along doing the alphabets, I needed to be there, right next to him, helping him hold his pencil the right way,” Crisp explained. “It seemed just too much for him.”
Now, Crisp pays about $1,100 a month to keep her would-be kindergartner in a private preschool this year.
Her family is part of a pandemic-era trend that Sacramento and many other school districts are experiencing this year: a massive drop in kindergarten enrollment.
Early data show Sacramento City Unified School District has about 600 fewer kindergartners this year, and about 1,600 fewer kids overall.
Child advocates and school officials fear the enrollment drop and educational disruptions for the young children could widen existing racial achievement gaps, and endanger school financing in the future.
“We’re very concerned about the effects on our district if we continue to see this level of declining enrollment,” SCUSD Superintendent Jorge Aguilar said.
Aguilar says if the declining enrollment holds, it could eventually mean millions in lost revenue to the already cash-strapped district.
“We are already a district in fiscal distress,” he said. “Every 100 students or so [lost], does cost the district about $1 million in revenue to serve our students.”
The drop in kindergartners appears to be a national phenomenon. Only 18 states require children to attend kindergarten. In California, it’s optional.
Los Angeles Unified School District reports more than 7,700 fewer kindergartners this year than last year. Georgia schools are reporting an 11% drop, and Oregon and Ohio schools seeing similar declines.
Education experts like Alix Gallagher with Stanford’s Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) say parents may decide not to enroll their young child in a distance-only kindergarten program because it doesn’t fulfill the three driving reasons why parents send their kids to school.
“People send them for social development, they send them for child care, and they send them for learning,” said Gallagher, director of strategic partnerships at PACE. “When two of them are gone and the third is questionable,” then parents go with a different option for their five year-old.
For Crisp’s son Lennon, deciding to prolong the preschool experience and skipping distance-only kindergarten was more about keeping her son on track with developmental milestones.
Her son makes art, plays and learns with other kids in person at his private preschool. She says the long-term value of that learning and socialization is worth the risk of him contracting COVID-19 at school.
“I don’t want him to be delayed going into school any more than he was going to be,” she said.
In a September 2020 COVID-19 Parent Survey conducted by the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, working parents expressed concerns about the burden of schooling young children at home during the pandemic, and the cost of finding alternatives.
“My oldest was going to start kindergarten, but with schools remote, we had to find a center with a school age program so that we are able to continue to work full time,” one anonymous respondent wrote. “This was an expense we were not anticipating for this school year."
Another wrote, “The concept of ‘distance learning’ for a [6-year-old] is nothing short of a joke.”
Some respondents reported looking into other in-person day care options for their would-be kindergartners, such as Montessori school with younger siblings.
Child advocates worry the kindergarten enrollment trend may be an early sign of educational inequities in the making.
Samantha Tran, the senior managing director for education policy for Children Now, says if kids in lower-income families fall behind because of pandemic-related school disruptions, it will be harder for them to catch up to their classmates who have parents with better financial means to meet their needs.
“Families with resources can choose to extend their child’s stay in preschool/child care if they are concerned about sending their child to TK/kindergarten in the current context,” Tran wrote in a statement.
Tran says California needs to invest more in early childhood education so that poorer families have more ways to help kids meet development goals.
“For far too long, we have perpetuated a system of have and have nots for young children, and the pandemic is laying that bare even more,” Tran said.
Superintendent Aguilar said he is also concerned that COVID-19-related learning disruptions will widen the achievement gap between white students and students of color. Missing kindergarten can set kids up to fall short on educational milestones down the road.
“Kindergarten is a critical, critical educational milestone that leads to another critical milestone a couple of years down the road... in third grade readiness rates, which of course, have a tremendous association to overall success.”
Aguilar points to a recent analysis from the consulting firm McKinsey and Company that suggests Black, Latino and low-income children will be most likely to fall behind.
In Sacramento City schools, more than half of the students are Black or Latino, and more than 70% of students are considered low-income, according to state data.
“Many of our students not only are going to see a regression in their learning, but they’re going to have a much more difficult time, and will make up for that lost learning at much slower rates,” Aguilar said. “This is the next iteration of this ongoing achievement gap that has plagued our students of color.”
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