Newly released figures from the Los Angeles Unified School District – one of the nation’s largest – show that roughly 6,000 fewer students registered for kindergarten this school year than in the previous year – a roughly 14% decrease from last year’s number of 42,912 children.
At a recent public address, Superintendent Austin Beutner said the biggest declines came from the most impoverished neighborhoods, where economic hardship resulting from the pandemic is most acute.
“We suspect some of this is because families may lack the ability to provide full-time support at home for online learning, which is necessary for very young learners,” Beutner said. “This is yet another reminder that this crisis is having a disproportionate impact on low-income families.”
Formal education isn’t legally required for California children younger than age 6, but experts have long said that high-quality preschool and kindergarten programs can narrow racial and economic achievement gaps among students. That’s why this year’s kindergarten decline could roll back the academic progress of vulnerable students – low-income youth, English language learners, children in foster care or from communities of color.
And as the spread of coronavirus leads to unprecedented job, housing and food insecurity, Beutner expects volatility in enrollment to continue for the foreseeable future.
“Since the crisis began, schools have had to balance three, sometimes–conflicting, priorities: the learning needs of students, the needs of working families and the health and safety of all in the school community,” he said during his Aug. 31 update to the LAUSD community.
Los Angeles Unified schools ended in-person instruction on March 13, but with COVID-19 cases dropping and protocols easing up, the 600,000-student district is preparing to reopen classrooms, a move it could make as early as November. New precautions include preparing to administer COVID-19 tests on school campuses and launching an app for students and staff to self-screen for symptoms.
Still, the implementation of these safety measures may not boost the lagging kindergarten enrollment, a prospect that alarms advocates for struggling children and families.
“If we don’t get the early learning right, these kids are never going to graduate,” said Sandy Mendoza, director of advocacy for Families in Schools. The Los Angeles-based organization encourages parents to take an active role in their children’s education.
“We’re going to have a lot of children who will be left further behind than they already were,” Mendoza said, adding that the societal impacts could be long-lasting. “We’re not going to have the labor force that we really need to carry us into the next decades.”
Children who sit out kindergarten may not only suffer academically but also socially, entering first grade without basic skills, such as knowing to raise their hands to participate in class, or how to follow their teachers’ instructions.
The benefits of virtual kindergarten during the pandemic, however, remain unclear as schools and teachers try to figure out the best way to engage small children through computer screens, said Samantha Tran, Children Now’s senior managing director of education policy.
And as families shift their housing to survive the current economic crisis, Tran expects children to move around a lot, another potential factor in the kindergarten decline. Since schools receive funding based on pupil attendance, “a major enrollment dip and a lot of student mobility” could have fiscal implications for districts in the years to come, Tran said. This could hurt schools’ ability to provide quality education to students once the enrollment numbers pick up.
For Mendoza, the fact that a growing number of parents didn’t enroll their children in kindergarten well before the pandemic is concerning. During the 2017-18 school year, for example, 46,634 kindergartners enrolled in LAUSD; this year just 36,914 are enrolled.
“Not all families, especially if they’re new to this country or new to the public education system, understand how important early education can be to ensure that their child is on the path to success,” Mendoza said. “Some of that I think needs to be addressed through a public education campaign and greater understanding of how child development can be better supported with kindergarten.”
Mendoza said mandatory kindergarten attendance could reverse the trend. Nationally, just Washington, D.C., and 17 states require school districts to offer a full day of kindergarten, despite research indicating that it improves the academic performance, self-confidence and interpersonal skills of children by the following year.
In California, public officials and education experts have debated making kindergarten mandatory, with some arguing that parents should be allowed to make that choice for their children. A year like 2020 could influence lawmakers to change their stance on mandatory kindergarten enrollment, Tran said. It’s also difficult to know how many parents are keeping their children in preschools equipped with kindergarten classes rather than switching them over to public elementary schools.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has forced many preschools to close their doors just as public schools have. And as parents juggle full-time jobs with full-time child-rearing, some are too pressed for time to oversee distance learning. Others lack technology or the digital know-how, problems that also factor into the kindergarten decline.
For years, the digital divide has affected economically disadvantaged families, Mendoza noted, but most school districts failed to address the issue until the pandemic left them no choice.
“Now, they're making it happen because of distance learning, but they could have done it sooner,” Mendoza said. Previously, “there was no impetus for them to do it.”
Had the government made the necessary investments in early childhood education years ago, the problems the pandemic has exposed likely wouldn’t be as dire now, she noted, problems exacerbating already rampant racial and economic injustice faced by Los Angeles children and families.
Combating them will require intervention at the local, state and federal levels, Mendoza said: “The actions that we take today are going to matter in the next couple of decades. We need an investment in early education because that's been neglected, and we can't ignore how young ones are going to be left behind.”