Elia Garrison was already considering holding her son Dominic back from starting kindergarten before the pandemic hit in 2020.
Coronavirus, she says, cemented that choice.
Dominic is the fifth of six children, and Garrison, a blogger in Perkasie, Pa., watched how tumultuous classes were for her older ones when the pandemic started. "I didn't want Dominic to have that experience with kindergarten, because kindergarten is such an important year for them," she says.
On top of that, Dominic already had a speech delay. "If they had to wear masks, would his speech be even more delayed?" she wondered. Learning online might present other issues, too.
So she enrolled him in a local pre-K, where she says he's spent the year learning his colors and numbers and playing with kids his age. He'll start kindergarten at the end of August.
Garrison's family is one of many around the country who kept their kids out of school last year.
Public school enrollment dipped across the board, preliminary federal data shows, and the youngest grades saw the largest changes. Kindergarten enrollment fell 9%, and pre-K enrollment fell 22%.
Now, schools are preparing for a year of unknowns: Should they brace for a surge if those students show up in large numbers? "Are we expecting those kids to return this fall? And if so, what is that going to do to this next cohort?" asks Beth Tarasawa, executive vice president of research at the education nonprofit NWEA.
It's not exactly clear where all those students went: Some would-be kindergarteners, such as Dominic, stayed in pre-K. Others were home-schooled. (According to census data, home-schooling doubled in popularity between the start of the pandemic and fall 2020.) Some children went to private school, and lots of kids didn't have much structured learning at all.
Early data suggests that in many places, the reasoning behind these choices depended on the resources available to families. In multiple states, for example, preschool enrollment drops were highest among families with lower incomes.
And so, as they ramp up for the coming school year, districts are watching out for a possible boost in enrollment, but many say it's too soon to tell if that will happen. In Portland, Ore., for example, where numbers dipped last year, officials say early enrollment is higher than average, though the actual numbers won't be available until the fall. In Indianapolis, officials report preliminary numbers aren't significantly higher than a normal school year.
The same goes for Nashville, Tenn., where Brittany Larsen is a kindergarten teacher. She says kids always enter kindergarten with a range of skills. Experts predict that this year, that range will be even wider. (In the states where kindergarten isn't mandatory, Tarasawa notes, these patterns could play out in first grade, too.)
Asking students to write their own name, Larsen says, can be a litmus test for the experience they're bringing to school. "That tells me their fine motor [skills], that tells me their letter ID recognition. ... Sometimes you ask them to write their name and they write their whole name or they write a sentence, or they draw themselves," she says.
She and her colleagues are also planning to focus heavily on social-emotional learning after such a turbulent year.
She's picked out books to help her 5- and 6-year-olds sort out the complicated feelings they might have about coming to school. Students didn't get much read-aloud time last year, but it's important, she says, to teach them how to sit on the carpet, how to be good listeners and how to start making connections with literature.
Larsen says she noticed that when her students finally came to school in person last year, that they lacked some of the social skills they might have picked up in a normal school year: "We had to focus a lot more on those soft skills ... like communicating with their peers, tattling vs. telling, how to advocate for yourself, how to stand up for yourself."
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It's almost the end of July, which means that schools across the country are already preparing for students to come back. A big question is, how many students? Enrollment in kindergarten fell last year, and many educators are wondering whether they will see a big jump in those youngest students this year. NPR's Clare Lombardo reports.
CLARE LOMBARDO, BYLINE: Elia Garrison's son Dominic is heading to kindergarten in the fall, and he says he's most excited about two things.
DOMINIC GARRISON: Playing games and playing with my friends.
LOMBARDO: Playing games and playing with his friends. Dominic just turned 6, and he could have headed to kindergarten last fall in Perkasie, Pa. But his parents decided to hold him back for an extra year, a practice called redshirting. They first heard about that option before the pandemic. And Elia says her husband Ray was hesitant at first.
ELIA GARRISON: You know, we grew up '80s and '90s, where you just don't do that.
LOMBARDO: But the longer they thought about it, the more that seemed like the right decision for Dominic. He didn't seem quite ready to start school.
GARRISON: And then, well, COVID hit, and I didn't know what school would look like. And I think that definitely cemented my idea of why I wanted to hold him back.
LOMBARDO: Elia heard from other parents in her district who did the same thing, and it turns out families across the country did, too. Nationally, public kindergarten enrollment dropped 9%, and preschool enrollment dropped even more - 22%, according to preliminary federal data. It's not clear where all these students went. Some would-be kindergartners, like Dominic, stayed in pre-K. Others were homeschooled. Some went to private school, and lots of kids didn't have much structure at all.
BETH TARASAWA: So the - I think the real kind of crystal ball moment or question, you might say, would be, are we expecting those kids to return this fall? And if so, what is that going to do to this next cohort?
LOMBARDO: That's Beth Tarasawa, who leads research at the education nonprofit NWEA. She says researchers are keeping an eye out for how all these patterns are going to impact kids as time goes on.
TARASAWA: But more importantly, it's also how are we meeting these kids' needs in the next year? And that's from the educators who are serving them, how school districts can plan for maybe more headcount than they typically would expect.
LOMBARDO: Lots of districts are watching for a possible boost in kindergarten enrollment, but it's too soon to say if that will actually happen. In Indianapolis, where numbers fell last year, current enrollment isn't much higher than a typical school year - same with Nashville. What we do know is that kids did lots of different things last year, so schools are getting prepared to meet them where they are.
BRITTANY LARSEN: If they can write their name tells me a lot, right?
LOMBARDO: Brittany Larsen is a kindergarten teacher in Nashville.
LARSEN: That tells me their fine motor. That tells me their letter ID recognition. Sometimes you say, write your name, and they write their whole name, or they write a sentence, or they draw themselves. So that can tell you a lot.
LOMBARDO: Larsen says last school year, when her students finally came to learn in person...
LARSEN: Because of the pandemic and the lack of social interaction for young kids, we had to focus a lot more on those soft skills, like communicating with their peers, tattling versus telling, how to advocate for yourself, how to stand up for yourself.
LOMBARDO: That's why this year they're focusing on those areas.
LARSEN: We've been really intentional, my team, thinking about how we can teach. It's called SEL skills - social emotional learning skills.
LOMBARDO: In Perkasie, Pa., Dominic's first day of school is August 30. He's excited because some of his friends from pre-K will be going to school with him. His mom, Elia, says this year he's ready and he's got the basics down.
DOMINIC: D, O, M, I, N, I and C.
GARRISON: Good job, Dominic.
LOMBARDO: Clare Lombardo, NPR News.
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