The Pandemic’s Impact on Kindergarten Enrollment
What Does this Fall Hold for Children, Families, and Schools?
This blog was co-authored with Walter Cook, a researcher with the Detroit Education Research Partnership at Wayne State University
DERP (Detroit Education Research Partnership) at Wayne State University and the Learning and Evaluation team from The Skillman Foundation often partner to discuss and analyze education and youth data to inform grantmaking strategies and decisions. Recently, we began studying the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on student enrollment rates in schools across Detroit. What we found was alarming: There was a dramatic decrease in kindergarten enrollment rates during the 2020-2021 school year, which is abnormal because enrollment rates have otherwise been stable for the past few academic years.
This decrease in kindergarten enrollment has significant impacts on the future of Detroit youth. Kindergarten and first-grade students will enter the classroom this fall with differing levels of academic preparedness and social-emotional skills. This will present challenges for teachers who will have to provide further differentiated instruction for students who are at different levels within the same classroom. The change in enrollment patterns could have a lasting impact on funding, as most funding allocations are based on a per-student basis. This means that if there are fewer students enrolled, there will be fewer dollars going toward schools. Enrolled students and their peers will likely need additional educational supports in future years.
We found it critical to share this particular challenge in the aftermath of COVID-19 because while we do not yet understand the full effects of the pandemic on the future of Detroit youth, we believe that the decrease in enrollment rates is disturbing. Through this information, parents, community groups, and institutions like nonprofits and foundations have the opportunity to support children’s reintegration into formal schooling.
More than 1 in 5 Detroit Kindergarteners Were Not Enrolled in School
In the 2020-21 school year, K-12 enrollment decreased across the country, with the state of Michigan having the fourth largest decrease. These significant declines in K-12 enrollment rates have been particularly concentrated in kindergarten, especially in the city of Detroit. In fact, the city’s overall decrease in kindergarten enrollment of 22.1% is twice that of the state average (11.3%).
To break it down further, there has been a 25.7% enrollment decrease of DPSCD kindergarten students between the 2019-2020 and the 2020-2021 academic year, which represents 1,836 fewer kindergarteners. To put this in context, this change accounts for 56% of the total decrease in enrollment in all K-12 students across the district. Detroit charter schools also saw a total of 20.5% decrease in enrollment of kindergarten students. This means that regardless of school sector and whether schooling was in-person or virtual, there were major shifts in the number of students who were enrolled in schools across the city.
Kindergarten is widely perceived as a critical point for social-emotional development as well as academic readiness for elementary school. However, under Michigan law, children are not required to attend kindergarten and are able to enroll directly into the first grade if families choose to do so. Yet under normal circumstances, most families still send their children to kindergarten. However, in the absence of adequate childcare and extra burden on parents during the COVID pandemic, many families have found enrolling their children in kindergarten to be difficult.
First, it was logistically challenging for many families to physically send their children to in-person schools, even when that was an option. Many parents also feared for the overall health and safety for their children.
Moreover, even though parents could technically enroll their children in a virtual setting, some households may not have been able to access the online resources they needed to properly attend school. Because of job constraints and lack of childcare, circumstances were such that parents could not give their children the time and attention they needed to ensure that they were participating in virtual classrooms even if they did have the technology.
The pandemic has significantly impacted children’s education, but we may not be able to realize the full scale of those impacts until later. Particularly for students who are eligible to start first grade, there is growing uncertainty about what post-pandemic educational challenges will look like for them. Missing or delaying kindergarten may have lasting consequences that will require targeted supports. We must recognize and address through policy and community-wide supports that our youngest students need special instructional and supplemental resources to help them overcome the impact from the pandemic.
Differentiated Classroom Instruction
Parents may choose to make several different decisions regarding their child’s enrollment in the fall 2021 semester. For those students who did not enroll in kindergarten this school year, parents will choose to either enroll their children in kindergarten or skip ahead to the first grade. This means that students who were enrolled in kindergarten during the pandemic will potentially be in the same first-grade classroom as students who did not attend kindergarten. Such differences in academic preparation create a need for greater differentiated instruction within the classroom than is typical.
Moreover, educators anticipate that these students entering kindergarten and first grade after a year of disrupted instruction to be less ready for the level of instruction typically taught. These more complicated dynamics will present challenges for both students and teachers. Teachers will have a harder time designing their course curricula and managing their classrooms. Students may receive less attention geared toward their particular learning needs because of different readiness levels within the same classroom.
School Administrative Concerns
At present, since we are unsure about enrollment rates in the fall semester, there is some chance that student enrollment will exceed projected staffing levels (or vice-a-versa), which will create challenges for classroom sizes. If enrollment exceeds pre-pandemic rates, there will either be classroom teacher shortages or more students per classroom. In addition, COVID safety precautions may require reduced numbers of students per classroom, which poses potential implications for school finances. In the short term, COVID recovery dollars will help schools to manage financial challenges, but at this point, we must also consider longer-term impacts.
If the number of students continues to be low, schools will face economic challenges. This is because there are two types of school expenses: a) fixed costs (e.g., facility expenses) that do not vary depending on the number of students; as well as b) marginal costs (e.g., number of teachers) which do vary with the number of students taught. If the number of students decreases, then the average costs are distributed over a smaller number of students. This has the effect of increasing the average cost for educating each remaining student. If the average cost to educate increases while the total revenue of students decreases because of fewer students, there will be negative effects on the quality of the educational experience.
How Schools Are Planning to Address the Issue
Given these challenges, school leaders across the city are attempting to engage with communities to improve the 2021-2022 school enrollment rates and think about what it means to reintegrate students back into the classroom in the fall semester.
However, as the Deputy Executive Director for Enrollment at DPSCD Katie Rae Stolper suggests, the issue of reintegrating students into the classroom goes beyond just getting them there: “They have seen more trauma this year than the year before. The district has more resources to help students navigate that. However, if families choose not to come back, it’s not just problematic from an enrollment standpoint but also because students will not be able to access food, social-emotional supports, loving teachers, and other resources if they don’t come back to school.”
Stolper mentions the school district is encouraging families to enroll their children in kindergarten instead of the first grade if they did not enroll in kindergarten during this school year to ensure that they can build important foundational skills, but will ultimately respect families’ decisions on which grade level is most appropriate. To tackle this, DPSCD is putting in the work to spread the word through widespread canvassing, creating mailings and videos about the Kindergarten experience, handing out flyers, and holding community events including workshops to ensure that parents and families feel safe to send their children back to school in the fall and understand the importance of the early years in a child’s education.
At UPREP Schools, Principal Kimberly Llorens says that their focus is mainly on ensuring students are enrolled, not encouraging parents to send their children to one particular grade over the other. In terms of how she intends to get students back, she says: “One thing we have done to ease parents’ minds, we have created videos about what it has looked like from teacher perspective and student perspective to ensure the safety of students”. She also mentioned that while they haven’t made a firm decision about virtual versus in-person next school year, they are leaning toward in-person. Summer school will be 100% in-person for teachers and students.
She also recognizes that parents who did not enroll their children in kindergarten this school year may hesitate at the idea of sending their kids to kindergarten in the fall because “parents may not be keen with the idea of 6-year-olds going to kindergarten even if they didn’t go to kindergarten the previous year there is a stigma around grade-level as it relates to a child’s age”. They may prefer to send their children to the first grade to be with peers of the same age.
Both of these school leaders believe that building parent and community awareness of the importance of early childhood education is the key to improving enrollment rates this fall. The education sector is not alone in amplifying this message. The nonprofit and philanthropic community has also lent its voice to the importance of early education and should continue to do so.
The early years in a child’s education are formative. They lay the foundation for social-emotional development, academic readiness, and the lifelong love of learning needed to progress and excel in school and life. After a year of hybrid, remote, or no school at all, we must prioritize how to deliver the best educational experience we can for our kids. Whether your seat is at the front of the classroom, state capitol, the corporate board room, or the kitchen table, we share in one great responsibility: readying the next generation to take the helm.