The pandemic-driven shift to remote learning contributed significantly to a dramatic drop in public school enrollment last year, especially among the nation’s youngest learners.
As the nation reopens schools amid upticks in Covid infections, newly collected data from 70,000 schools across 33 states, details how parents, faced with remote schooling for their kindergarten children, opted not to enroll them in public schools.
Six-year-old Katie Coleman was among the students who did not enroll at San Ramon Elementary kindergarten in Marin County last fall. Her mother, Liz Coleman, after much agonizing decided to keep Katie in her in-person pre-school to spare her the agony of remote.
In a normal year, public school enrollment usually goes up slightly. With the pandemic raging in the fall of 2020, public school enrollment dropped 2% with more than a million students who didn’t enroll in school either in person or online.
The biggest group — more than 340,000 — were kindergartners, followed by students in grades one through three, data show.
The trend, reported for California this spring by EdSource, unfolded nationwide with at least 10,000 local public schools that lost the enrollment of 20% or more of their kindergartners, a New York Times analysis reveals.
“This enrollment decline is an important leading indicator of the educational impact of the pandemic,” concludes a Stanford University research paper, a key part of a unique collaboration with journalists from Stanford’s Big Local News, The New York Times, EdSource and Colorado News Cooperative.
“We observed that the impact of remote-only schooling in reducing enrollment was particularly large in kindergarten and to a lesser extent in lower elementary school grades and not so dramatic in middle and high school grades,” said Thomas S. Dee, Stanford education professor.
California saw kindergarten enrollment plummet last fall by nearly 12%, ranking 13th among the states. A third of the 160,000 drop in students were kindergartners – a startling 61,000; another third students in grades 1-3 and the rest in grades 4-12.
The loss was statewide. More than 4 out of 5 districts with kindergartners saw a decline in enrollment, and nearly 60% of charter schools also saw a decrease, an EdSource analysis found.
The drop in kindergarten enrollment in the nation’s public schools was even greater among the 31 states like California where kindergarten is not mandatory. Although California requires children to enroll in school by age 6, most attend kindergarten.
What happened to the children who never enrolled in kindergarten last fall? Faced with forcing a squirming 5-year-old to sit still in front of a computer for hours every day while tending to their own jobs as well as the needs of other children, some parents, like Coleman, kept their children in preschool or child care; moved children to private schools, which resumed in-person instruction more quickly; or chose to home-school their children. Others may have stuck with babysitting from family and friends.
The big question now as classes resume is whether they will make their way back to the public schools and how much help they will need.
A tough decision
For Katie’s mother, Liz Coleman not enrolling her daughter in public school was a tough decision.
“I felt so guilty because I believe in public schools. I struggled so much with that choice, but being with other kids is a huge part of what you need from school at that age,” said Coleman, an attorney and mother of two. “She wouldn’t have had fun or learned a lot, being on Zoom. I didn’t want her sitting in front of a dumb computer all day. It was much better to be at preschool with her buddies.”
Coleman also knew that she had to go to the office, which meant there would be no one at home to supervise remote learning. “A lot of moms had to quit their jobs,” she said. “As a single parent, I didn’t have that option. I wasn’t able to sit there and look over her shoulder all day.”
Coleman also felt the familiarity of the preschool environment would comfort her daughter, who was experiencing high anxiety over the pandemic. The little girl had been waking up in the middle of the night to wash her hands.
“Emotionally, it felt like a big deal to skip kindergarten. I was nervous about it. But it turned out to be the right decision,” Coleman said.
As for academics, Katie, who is headed to first grade in the fall at her local public school, is ahead of the curve at this point.
“She’s reading at a third-grade level right now. I have been very pleased with the decision to keep her in preschool an extra year,” said Coleman, noting that not everyone can afford to shell out for private school. “I was lucky. It was not a cheap decision. If I hadn’t been able to afford it, we would have done Zoom K and been miserable.”
Equity concerns for low-income students
Sticking with in-person preschool was also the preferred option for families on the opposite end of the income spectrum. At Kidango, a nonprofit organization that runs many Bay Area child care centers that serve mostly low-income children, about two-thirds of the children who were eligible to go into transitional kindergarten last fall, a bridge between preschool and kindergarten which was offered remotely, opted to stick with preschool instead.
Educators are worried that low-income children with less access to other enrichment are most vulnerable. All children may face some challenges getting up to speed after the pandemic, but early childhood experts suggest that low-income children and those with learning issues might confront the steepest hurdle.
“Missing kindergarten will be a problem for many children,” said W. Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University. “Children with disabilities missed important services or perhaps even having their needs identified. As lower-income families were less likely to be able to provide substitutes for missed kindergarten experiences, their children will have lost the most.”
Nationwide, the steepest kindergarten losses were seen in neighborhoods below and just above the poverty line, where the average household income for a family of four was $35,000 or less. The drop was 28% larger in schools in those neighborhoods than in the rest of the country, a New York Times analysis found. In California, the kindergarten enrollment loss was more evenly spread among students in all income groups, an EdSource analysis showed.
What happened last year was significant, a “canary in the coal mine,” Stanford’s Dee said, noting there will be potential consequences.
“This research is really important, but it’s far from the final word. … It’s a leading indicator that substantive, important changes have occurred, but we need to know more.”
One question is the impact these children will have on the size of the fall 2021 kindergarten class. If many attend kindergarten they will create a “class size shock” that will follow them throughout their schooling, Dee said. And there will be fiscal implications if they don’t return to public schools.
Educators may also be challenged by the students who move on to first grade. “These are kids who will be experiencing formal schooling for the first time. And so their readiness to learn might be very different than what first grade teachers usually see,” said Dee. “Careful professional teachers are going to need to adapt to those learning challenges.”
Among all students, enrollment declines due to remote instruction were particularly large in rural areas and in areas with high concentrations of Latino students. The reasons may reflect the digital divide, Dee noted. “Do these communities have access to have on average high-speed internet and the relevant devices to participate in remote only instruction?”
In contrast, the study found that remote-only instruction had less impact in districts serving higher concentrations of Black students. Dee said this difference is consistent with surveys indicating that Black parents view remote instruction more favorably, possibly because they welcomed the opportunity to see up-close how their children were being taught and tested.
Distance learning was so hard on small children, especially those whose first introduction to school was a computer, that many of those who persevered through virtual kindergarten will also need special attention, educators say.
Early childhood advocates say this summer has been a pivotal time for helping young children heal from the traumas of the pandemic and reconnect, especially kindergartners who may need help to prepare for first grade.
“I would say 90% of kindergartners struggled this year because online is just not the best way to broach kindergarten,” said Melynda Piezas, the principal at Dover Elementary in the West Contra Costa Unified district in San Pablo, which offered a summer program aimed at the youngest learners.
“Kindergarten is so much more than learning letters and numbers. It’s learning how to be in a classroom. It’s learning how to be a student. It’s learning how to answer to an adult that’s not mom or dad.”
Most experts agree that young children don’t learn as well from screens as they do from face-to-face teaching, and many parents are wary of screen addiction.
For these small children, the public health crisis was a watershed moment. Before the pandemic, Nicolas Diaz Garcia was a carefree little boy who always loved being outdoors.
All of that changed after his mother fell ill from Covid and remote learning came to dominate his life. Suddenly the 5-year-old spent most days inside, staring at one screen or another, often feeling nausea or breaking into tears.
“He was pretty sad most of the time last year,” said his mother, Olga Garcia, her voice thick with emotion. “He’s an only child, and he was lonely. I did my best, but he is a very active kid, so it was hard for him to just sit there…He stopped wanting to go to the park. He didn’t want to ride his scooter. He just wanted to watch TV or play Nintendo.”
Although Garcia was nervous about enrolling him in summer school because of the recent uptick in Covid cases, she already sees a difference.
“Now he wakes up and he’s excited to come to school. He just loves it,” she said about the program at Dover Elementary.
Making children feel safe and happy may be the first step in rebounding from the crisis, experts say.
“Effective summer programming is focused on building positive relationships and creating a joyful, engaging atmosphere, which is exactly what our brains need, particularly for young children, to learn and grow,” said Samantha Tran, senior managing director of education policy at Children Now, an advocacy organization.
While districts are running summer programs funded by billions in federal Covid relief, those programs will reach only a sliver of impacted kindergartners because many schools have no way to contact families before they enroll. They must wait for them to come forward in the fall.
The home school option
Rachel Summer Claire Friedman had always been curious about home schooling, but it took Covid to make her take the plunge. It’s an option that spiked during the pandemic year in California.
“The worst part of remote learning was feeling like no one was winning,” said Friedman, a Santa Rosa mother of two. “Kids didn’t get to hang out with their friends like they wanted. Parents were super stressed trying to manage cumbersome technology that was not made for small children’s learning while working from home and dealing with all the other stressors. … It felt like a lose-lose-lose.”
Her second-grader, Noah, 8, normally an academic star, hated distance learning so much she started teaching him and her younger son, Ezra, 5, in small spurts throughout the day. She also kept Ezra in his outdoor-based preschool instead of remote transitional kindergarten, which frustrated many small children. Balancing all of this with her career as a physician was not easy, but she says it was an invaluable experience.
“It was a really wonderful year of focused family time and thinking about what kids really need in the way of education in these early years,” Friedman said. “It helped me focus on what’s really important in growing little humans: kindness, generosity, curiosity, patience, as opposed to getting a certain test score, being the best, making the team, etc.”
Children can catch up
While kindergarten sets the stage for the rest of the elementary school years, some experts say there is no need to assume that children will be unable to catch up if given the right opportunities and resources.
“Early childhood education is incredibly important,” said Gennie Gorback, president of the California Kindergarten Association. “But no one who missed this last year is doomed. Teachers are trained to meet their students’ learning needs, and that is exactly what they will continue doing into this next school year.”
Some experts think the focus should be on tutoring and expanded programs instead of holding kids back for a whole year.
“Intensive one-on-one tutoring is highly effective and can focus on just what each student needs to catch up,” Barnett said.
Piezas and her teachers are quick to note the exuberance of the children in the Dover summer bridge program.
“They are so happy to be here right now. Their natural state of being is learning,” said Nicole Wheeler, watching her kindergartners tumble and frolic on the grass during PE at Dover. “A lot of these kids didn’t go to preschool, and they didn’t have a lot of enrichment available to them. This is primarily a low-income neighborhood with parents working multiple jobs and siblings taking care of younger children. They often can’t even go to the library because there is no one to take them.”
While it’s hard to know exactly what the kids who missed kindergarten are going to need until they return to school, particularly those who do not participate in any summer programs, many experts say they are ready to meet kids where they are.
“First grade teachers who have students that missed kindergarten will do what they always do. They will work hard to figure out each student’s learning needs and will give them the best education possible,” Gorback said. “Teachers are experts in assessment and differentiation, especially those who teach the lower grades. They will be able to reach their students, even if those students missed a year of learning.”
At Dover, they are planning to kick off first grade with a quick kindergarten recap. The focus will also be on engaging and interactive lessons from art to science, Peizas said, and not cranking through endless worksheets. She notes that while some children may not have learned how to hold a pencil, many of them will have enviable tech skills.
“This isn’t coming out of the blue. We are prepared for it. I think the important thing is to make sure that learning is not stressful,” said Piezas.
“You have to take the pressure off the kids and off the teachers too. I don’t like all that pressure. I don’t think anyone learns well in that kind of atmosphere.”
The key to kindergartners bouncing back academically, many say, is setting a foundation for the joy of learning instead of bemoaning what was lost during the pandemic. Now more than ever, it’s time to embrace play-based learning to inspire a generation that has already faced far too much stress and strain at a tender time in their lives.
“They’ll learn so much better when it’s developmentally appropriate rather than us trying to make them act like little mini-adults,” Piezas said, suggesting teaching addition with blocks, for example. “The best thing a kindergarten teacher can teach is that school is fun and learning is fun. Because if you ruin school for a child in kindergarten, then it’s a really hard uphill battle.”
ABOUT THIS SPECIAL REPORT
This project represents a unique collaboration to find out what happened to K-12 enrollment during the pandemic year when schools were largely offering distance learning to their students.
The result is the compiling of a database of enrollment data from 70,000 public schools in 33 states for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years for up to six years.
The project’s goal was to get more timely and detailed data than what the U.S. Department of Education would provide.
The data was collected from the states by data journalists and researchers with Stanford University’s Big Local News project, The New York Times, the journalism nonprofit OpenNews and two nonprofit newsrooms, EdSource in California and the Colorado News Collaborative. The collection effort, led by Eric Sagara, was carried out by: Justine Issavi, Julia Ingram, Charlie Hoffs, Dilcia Mercedes, Justin Mayo, Elizabeth Huffaker, Christine DeLianne, Cheryl Phillips and Thomas Dee contributed for Stanford; Alicia Parlapiano and Jugal K. Patel for The Times; Ryan Pitts for OpenNews; Daniel J. Willis for EdSource; and Vignesh Ramachandran for the Colorado News Collaborative.
The Stanford Graduate School of Education research team led by Thomas S. Dee and Elizabeth Huffaker analyzed the data as part of their just-published research.
Investigations and Projects Editor, EdSource