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Annika Dunlap, 5, learns math with her mom, Nahoko Dunlap, 39. The Dunlaps withdrew Annika from online kindergarten after one day. She now attends a private preschool near her home in California. Credit: Nahoko Dunlap

Five years old and already knowing her letters and basic subtraction, Annika Dunlap sat down in late August for her first day of kindergarten. Her mom helped her log in. Ninety minutes later, kindergarten was over for Annika. For good.

“We decided, this is not for a 5-year-old,” said her mom, Nahoko Dunlap, 39. “The teacher was great, and I was really hoping she would love her teacher, but asking a 5-year-old to sit in front of a computer for 90 minutes wasn’t ideal.”

After that one morning session, Dunlap, a scientist who grew up in Japan, withdrew Annika from kindergarten at her local public elementary school in Fremont, California. She and her husband, who works as a software engineer, felt that Annika’s social experience was more important than any academic progress she might make in remote kindergarten.

“In person, you are learning from each other, but when it comes to virtual school, you’re not having conversations, so I didn’t see many positives of virtual learning,” Dunlap said. “She learned to mute and unmute.”

Today Annika attends the Little Mud Puddles Learning Center, a private preschool, with her 3-year-old brother. Her mom works with her on phonics and reading in the evenings, and hopes she will be ready for first grade this fall. The tuition at Little Mud Puddles is $1,400 a month per child, which is typical for the Bay Area, but the Dunlaps get a discount for sending two children and pay $2,660 every month. It’s a stretch, as Nahoko Dunlap is working only part time while attending college to make a career change.

“Kindergarten didn’t seem too critical,” she said. “It’s not mandatory in California, and that made us feel that she’s better off in person.”

Last fall, parents of 5-year-olds across the country went through the same calculation. Kindergarten, a foundational grade for young children, is typically  the first year of elementary school, even in the 31 states where it isn’t required. But faced with the substitution of online kindergarten or, where school is offered in person, the risk that bigger school settings pose of contracting the coronavirus, a widespread number of parents chose something else, even if it meant paying for it.

In the absence of official national data, independent analyses have tried to quantify this year’s shift away from kindergarten. According to reporting by NPR, kindergarten enrollment in districts across the country dropped by an average of 16 percent. Another analysis shows that this drop accounts for nearly a third of the total reduction in public school enrollment across 33 states.  The decline might be greater among white families, which presumably have more resources for alternatives. In Oregon, for example, many more white families kept their children out of kindergarten than Black or Latino families there, according to reporting by The Oregonian, the state’s largest newspaper.

School districts and early childhood experts that are tracking the opting out of  kindergarten report that some 5-year-olds are attending impromptu kindergarten classes offered by private preschools, while others are enrolled in online charter or for-profit schools. Some well-to-do families hire tutors — sometimes paying a teacher’s salary — to work alongside a child who is  attending remote kindergarten. Other families are skipping the school year entirely.

Many 5-year-olds around the country, like Julian Berg, seen here taking a moment during remote learning at his home in Virginia last fall, are having their patience tested by online kindergarten. Credit: Esther Berg

The haphazard array of alternatives has early education leaders worried. While any kindergarten class reflects a variety of school readiness, kindergarten and first grade teachers will likely encounter a wider preparedness gap this fall. More children may be off track, not just academically but also emotionally and even physically, exacerbating inequities along class and racial lines.

“This does not balance out in favor of lower-income families,” said Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. “It’s a problem across the board for a whole cohort of kids, but the consequences are going to be the greatest for the most disadvantaged.”

Related: What kids stand to lose if 2020 steals kindergarten

Specifics about who isn’t attending kindergarten are spotty and mostly anecdotal. Some districts followed up with families to ask why they didn’t enroll their 5-year-olds and what their plans were, but even then the picture lacked detail. When officials at Harrison School District 2, which serves some of the poorest neighborhoods in Colorado Springs, Colorado, queried families that had not enrolled for kindergarten, most reported choosing one of four alternatives: home schooling, private or parochial school, charter school or skipping kindergarten altogether.

“I am very concerned for this group of kids,” said  Wendy Birhanzel, the district’s superintendent. “We will have to watch this cohort even through their senior year. They will be starting with a gap.”

Kindergarten enrollment in Harrison is down about 10 percent this year, and about 60 percent of the “missing” children are Hispanic English learners. This concerns Birhanzel because preschool enrollment is also down in the community, so some children who register in the fall may never have been in school at all. The district is open for in-person instruction with an option for remote.

Students who are learning English “need as much time in front of a teacher as they can get,” she said. “It’s a grave concern that this is just one more year for them of not being exposed to English.”

Just five years ago, the district was celebrating having narrowed the proficiency gaps between white, Black and Latino students and bringing test scores in all subjects closer together by revamping curriculum, focusing on different learning styles and eliminating barriers to AP classes. This year may set that progress back.

“When he was in [online] kindergarten he would look at me and say, ‘Why are you making me do this?’”

Ann Voong, parent

“Any time you talk about achievement gaps, and you have a group of students not coming to school, there’s concern,” Birhanzel said. “Once that gap is created, it’s so much harder to close. We’re going to have to put extra resources through the grades, so this cohort can graduate on time.”

In normal years, Harrison District 2 offers a summer program for kids entering third grade through high school. This year, that program will include incoming kindergartners and rising first graders. Assuming the coronavirus is under control, kids will build academic skills, do music and physical education and take field trips (pandemic restrictions permitting). The district will also administer diagnostic testing before school starts to make grade placement and support decisions, reduce class sizes and teach in small groups to address gaps.

Kindergarten-age children who aren’t enrolled in school this year are missing out on crucial academic instruction, Birhanzel said, “and that’s not even talking about the social learning — listening to the teacher, making friends.”

Related: How play is making a comeback in kindergarten

School attendance isn’t critical just for academic progress. Many families rely on their schools for counseling services, after-school programs, health clinics and physical safety. In addition, the physical education and meals that children get at school play a key role in addressing childhood obesity.

“All of the weight gain problems turn out to be in the summer,” NIEER’s Barnett said. “It turns out there is a poorer diet and less activity in the summer.”

Affluent parents can pay for an extra year of preschool or a tutor, while many nonmedical frontline jobs pay lower wages, leaving lower-income families with fewer options to support kids in distance learning.

But in some cities, local organizations responded early in the pandemic and established free or low-cost centers where children could get support while attending remote school.

In Wilmington, Delaware, the city partnered with local school districts and United Way to operate 26 learning pods where children receive a Chromebook and can attend all day for free.

“This isn’t a Boys and Girls Club,” said Michelle Taylor, president and CEO of United Way of Delaware. “Parents have to work. If my kid is at home, how do I know they’re in their class? This is as much about ensuring kids have a safe, caring environment to excel as it is getting the supports in place.”

About 700 Delaware children attend these pods, which are located in high-need neighborhoods. In order to keep their spots, students have to commit to attend 85 percent of the time and to get 85 percent of their schoolwork done while they are there. Paraprofessional teachers, who work for the school district and live in the pods’ neighborhoods, work with groups of 10 children.

“When it comes to virtual school, you’re not having conversations, so I didn’t see many positives of virtual learning.”

Nahoko Dunlap, parent

“We’re working to make sure the [achievement] gap doesn’t get any wider,” Taylor said. “Over the summer, we are hoping we can focus on catch-up, on closing the gap.”

Even when there is an adult present to help a young child with remote school, some children simply cannot focus for the amount of time required.

“It’s a very, very steep learning curve for these kids,” said Debra Zweben, child development specialist at Children’s Village, a nonprofit education center in Philadelphia. “Young children cannot have a personal connection to a teacher through a screen. It’s not realistic. So much of kindergarten is the relationship to the teacher in person.”

Grouped in age-based pods and wearing headsets, children attend their remote school classes from computers in Children’s Village’s  building in the Center City neighborhood. An in-person teacher helps them sign in and get used to Zoom or Google Classroom. There are breaks for lunch, snacks and some outdoor play, but kids spend most of the day on their own, on a computer.

“Ethan didn’t want to wear the headsets, and we got three different kinds,” said

Ethan Voong, 5, colors with his mom, Ann Voong, 40. Ethan struggled with online kindergarten so much that his parents withdrew him from his popular Philadelphia public school. They hope to enroll him in kindergarten again in fall 2021. Credit: Ann Voong

Ann Voong, 40, whose son attended remote kindergarten at Children’s Village for about three months. “He would just get up and do what he wanted. I can’t just strap him down to his seat.”

Voong adjusted her schedule at work, in the human resources department of a home health agency, and kept Ethan at home in the mornings so she could help him with remote kindergarten. Then she’d drop him off at Children’s Village in the afternoon and go to work, but that didn’t go well either.

“I would sit with him from 8 to 12 and then drop him off after lunch, but he got drained from it. He would be so tired from the day,” she said. “I want him to enjoy school. I want him to like it. If I take out a book, I want him to be excited about it.  He used to be excited about it.”

Ethan, who is 5, is still at Children’s Village, but in a preschool classroom. Voong withdrew him from kindergarten, giving up a spot at an in-demand public school that she had secured by getting in line at 5 a.m. on registration day. Now she is waiting to hear if he has a spot in kindergarten at that same school this fall.

“I just want him to be happy,” she said. “We’ve taken so many things away from him [during the pandemic], like sports and playing at the playground. When he was in kindergarten he would look at me and say, ‘Why are you making me do this?’”

Related: TEACHER VOICE — How do you teach online kindergarten?

Assessing children for grade-level readiness and building necessary supports may be the best tools that districts have to address potential gaps. In Yakima, Washington, the West Valley School District saw a 20 percent drop in expected kindergarten enrollment last fall. Elementary schools in the district are open for face-to-face instruction. Like Harrison School District 2, the West Valley district is  now planning a summer program for all grades, followed by assessments and conversations with parents to discuss the best grade assignment and any necessary supports.

“We want to be proactive in placement rather than having children go into first grade, have struggles, and then have to move them back,” said Peter Finch, assistant superintendent for learning and teaching. About 40 percent of West Valley students are Hispanic, and 42 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

But Finch isn’t worried about an achievement gap, at least not in the primary grades, even with so many children not attending kindergarten. West Valley’s “personalized learning” approach translates state standards into badges that children earn at their own pace. Classrooms are also amply staffed, with student teachers from a local college assisting the lead teacher.

“You walk into classrooms, and there will be five adults working with five small groups,” he said. “We have a station rotation model. Students learn at their own pace. When they’re ready to show what they know, we do an assessment and they get the badge.”

Kindergarten students in Washington state are pictured here enjoying play just months before the pandemic shut down schools to most in-person learning. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

Kim Noyes, principal of Centennial Elementary in Colorado Springs’ Harrison School District 2, is also optimistic that individualized instruction with robust support will be enough to support children who come to school after missing the crucial kindergarten year.

“A lot of families are doing what they can at home,” she said. But she does expect to see more readiness gaps. In addition to diagnostic testing, Noyes said her teachers will tap into the district’s curriculum and resource department to identify specific supports. “Even in the first grade, we are going to be maximizing group learning and smaller class sizes to help fill holes. It’s a tricky time right now, but I think we’re well equipped, and our resources can be focused.”

Not everyone agrees that assessing children before making a grade assignment will lead to the best outcomes. Many experts worry that tests don’t capture a child’s capacity to learn quickly and catch up.

“I would be careful about assessment,” said Rhian Alvin, CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “We have a long, nasty history of assessing children to sort and characterize.”

“Teachers will have to watch and be sure they don’t become frustrated about the outcome of the pandemic, and take it out on the students.”

Bweikia Steen, associate professor of education

There will be a gap between parents who have been able to provide recreational and learning opportunities despite the pandemic and those who have not, Alvin predicted. And catching up those left behind will be expensive, too, she said.

To start, teachers will need professional development and ongoing coaching so they can help kids make up for lost learning time.

“Teachers will have to watch and be sure they don’t become frustrated about the outcome of the pandemic, and take it out on the students,” said Bweikia Steen, associate professor of education at George Mason University. “It’s not their fault what’s happened over this past year.”

If a child is behind academically or socially, it isn’t necessarily because the parents weren’t engaged, Steen said. Many parents are working hard to make ends meet, which may leave less or very little time for reading with their kids. Teachers may need training to understand individual family circumstances, she said, so they can provide thoughtful support. She is optimistic that quality instruction can meet the needs of children who have missed a year of school.

“If we go into the fall the same way we go into any new year, thinking, ‘I’m going to have a range of students who have a range of experiences, and it’s my job to meet each individual child’s needs,’ it’ll be fine,” Steen said.  “Will it be easy? No. But I’m not saying it’s going to be doomsday.”

This story about kindergarten enrollment was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Kate Rix is a freelance journalist who writes about education, equity and urban issues. She lives in Oakland, California.

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