Enrollment in public schools is down across the country. For example, enrollment fell by 15,000 in public schools in Chicago and by more than 20,000 in the District of Columbia. The trend is particularly marked among kindergarten and kindergarten students. In an NPR survey of 60 U.S. districts in 20 states, enrollment in public kindergartens declined by an average of 16%. The Philadelphia school district saw enrollment drop by about 5,000 last fall, of which 3,500 students were kindergartners.
» READ MORE: Where are all the kindergarteners? In the event of a pandemic, some parents do not enroll them in public school.
Delaying children’s entry into kindergarten is nothing new, but the pandemic has widened its reach. And this has the potential to exacerbate already significant educational inequalities. As a researcher in child and family policy and a parent of two children under the age of 7, I find the new trend concerning.
In a typical year, about 5% of kindergarten-aged children are “red-shirted” – their delayed school entry. The phrase originally referred to varsity athletes who were barred from competing on varsity teams. Parents can delay kindergarten until their children are more socially, emotionally, and physically mature.
Research suggests that that extra year before starting school can improve children’s attention and self-regulation. But the academic benefits of redshirting seem to diminish as kids enter middle school and high school.
However, the reasons for kindergarten being delayed over the past year are unique to the pandemic.
Many families don’t have an in-person school option and may understandably be wary of the effectiveness of online learning, especially for young children. Parents have long heard from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and other groups of the harms of too much screen time, so some may have chosen to avoid it. for the education of their children.
And, virtual learning simply cannot provide the interactions with toys, physical games, peers and teachers that young children need to learn fundamental skills like compromise.
Many parents are also incredibly stressed as they try to juggle work and family demands – now 10 months into the pandemic. Managing children’s Zoom schedules, organizing learning materials and supervising homework add to an already overflowing plate. The problem is worse for parents who cannot work from home and are left with few childcare options.
For families with in-person or hybrid schooling options, public health measures like masks and social distancing make kindergarten a less welcoming environment. And, of course, the health concerns of catching the coronavirus have led to more families keeping their children at home.
When schools resume full-time in-person learning, teachers will need to teach a wider range of skills and needs among their students.
In a typical year, boys, white children, and children from high-income families are most likely to be retained. However, this year school enrollment has fallen disproportionately among Latino and black children. This compounds inequitable access to in-person education.
A survey found that half of Latino, black and single-parent families had fully remote schools, compared to a third of white families. Additionally, limited internet and device access also contribute to inequalities in remote learning.
What widespread kindergarten enrollment delays mean for children’s learning depends on how they spend their time when they’re not in public school. Some children, especially those from high-income families, attend private schools, which are more likely to offer in-person instruction. More and more families are choosing homeschooling.
“Access to early learning opportunities has become even more inequitable in the pandemic.”
But for some children, economic insecurity, material hardships and increased stress at home can alter family dynamics and reduce learning opportunities.
Those pressures are even greater for families — disproportionately those of color — who face personal or family illness, unemployment or weaker paychecks. A recent report by the Urban Institute found that in September 2020, four in 10 Latino and Black families reported food insecurity, compared to 15% of white families – all historically high numbers.
Inequalities in children’s experiences in kindergarten compound inequalities in early childhood experiences. Research consistently shows the benefits of early childhood education for child development. But access to early learning opportunities has become even more inequitable in the pandemic, according to a report from the Center for American Progress.
These inequalities exacerbate the already wide racial, ethnic and socio-economic achievement gaps. For example, recent evidence suggests that children’s progress in math is declining, and even more so among children in low-income communities. Many young children are not meeting benchmark levels of early literacy and numeracy skills, putting them at risk for long-term academic problems.
When schools eventually reopen full-time, teachers will need to teach a wider range of skills and needs among their students because of these growing achievement gaps. And, it’s likely that the kindergarten class of 2021-22 will be larger than normal, creating hassle around class sizes, space and staffing needs.
For now, declining enrollment is hurting public school budgets.
Schools generally receive public funds based on a per-child allocation that depends on children’s enrollment and attendance. With declining enrollment and state and local revenues, spending on K-12 schools is expected to decline by up to 10% in fiscal year 2021. In the long term, public schools could face permanent declines in enrollment as some families choose to stay in private school or continue home schooling.
» READ MORE: Does “redshirting” really benefit children? Inside the big kindergarten readiness decision parents make.
The decrease in funds comes at a time when school costs are rising. Schools have had to train teachers in virtual learning and expand health and safety measures, such as upgrading ventilation systems and hiring more staff for smaller classrooms.
Public schools will need more financial aid to recover. The December 2020 COVID-19 relief package includes $54 billion for K-12 public education, though that may not be enough to fully reverse the damage caused by the pandemic.
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Given the pressures on families, combined with the encouraging news about vaccines, it’s no surprise that parents are choosing to wait until next year to send their children to school. While we won’t know the full impact on children’s learning or school budgets for years, fewer kids in kindergarten now is likely to have long-term cascading consequences for everyone.
Taryn Morrissey is associate professor of public administration and policy at the American University School of Public Affairs. This article first appeared in The Conversation, a nonprofit news source unlocking knowledge from academic experts.