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Kindergarten Classes Shrink As Parents Look For Alternatives To Virtual

Meramec Elementary School Principal Jonathan Strong works with a preschool student on writing letters. Strong will have more flexibility next year to improve the St. Louis school.
File Photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Meramec Elementary School Principal Jonathan Strong works with a preschool student in March 2019. St. Louis Public Schools saw a 40% decline in pre-K enrollment this fall, as have other districts.

School administrators are trying to figure out just what all the 5-year-olds are up to, as many did not show up — or log on — for the first day of school.

The leading theory: Parents wary of their young children being parked in front of a computer screen all day are finding alternatives and skipping the virtual learning public schools are offering during the pandemic.

School districts across the country are reporting sizable declines in the number of young children signing up for kindergarten. Several school systems in St. Louis are experiencing the same.

The drop in kindergarten registrations is not being felt in every school district in the region, but registrations are down 27% in Ritenour, 12% in Parkway and 18% in Ferguson-Florissant. The Maplewood Richmond Heights district said its numbers are stable from previous years. Jennings and Normandy, which both started the year with kids in classrooms, said kindergarten numbers are actually up.

Declines appear to be steeper in St. Louis, though not in all public schools. Enrollment in St. Louis Public Schools’ pre-kindergarten program — one of the few universal free preschool programs in the region — is off 40%. KIPP St. Louis, the largest charter school network in the city, had a 36% drop in new kindergarteners when it usually has a waiting list by this time of year, administrators said.

“It's pretty unusual,” said KIPP St. Louis Executive Director Kelly Garrett.

Researchers and educators know virtual learning is hardest on younger learners and schools are trying to get them back in classrooms sooner than older students. Socialization and learning through play and discovery, which are hard to mimic through a computer, are also important for that age group.

There are several theories for the precipitous drop in new kindergarteners. Because older grade levels are not seeing the same declines, Garrett said it’s likely more than just population shifts in the city.

“If it means they keep being kept safe, I think some families are opting to just delay the start and watching to see what happens when schools open,” Garrett said.

Missouri parents are not required by state law to enroll their children in school until the child is 7 years old. Other families are also looking at other options in which their children can get more in-person learning, either through private schools or homeschooling.

Rachel Ayers and her husband moved last year to Affton, in south St. Louis County, largely for the school district. Her two eldest daughters would have started first grade and kindergarten in August.

But when COVID-19 cases in the St. Louis area spiked mid-summer and school districts retracted plans to start the school year with some level of in-person learning, Ayers “felt like my resolve to stay with the public school option was just kind of being chipped away at.”

Classes over Zoom in the spring were “emotionally exhausting” for the girls, she said, so the Ayerses withdrew the girls’ enrollment in the school district and registered with a local homeschooling co-op, SHARE. They joined a so-called learning pod, where her daughters spend a few days a week learning with a handful of other kids and go on field trips together on Fridays. Ms. Ayers combed through learning standards to design a curriculum; Mr. Ayers, who is a drummer, provides music lessons.

“They love to learn,” Ayers said. “I'm very grateful for how easy they are to teach. I know that that's not the case for a lot of families right now.”

Affton’s kindergarten enrollment is down by about 30 students, or 15%, though a spokeswoman said they’ve seen some families signing up recently.

Affton will reopen its schools for kindergarten through eighth grade on Oct. 13, as several county schools reopen for elementary students. Ayers said she’s planning, for the time being, to continue with homeschooling, even after school returns to normal post-pandemic.

Children never returning to public education and opting instead for homeschool or for private schools will have long-term funding implications for school districts. The amount of funding school districts receive from state or federal governments is based on per-student enrollment.

But educators worry most about children in households that can’t afford private school, personal tutors or parent-heavy homeschooling.

“There will be a group of students that will be behind,” said Basiyr Rodney, an education professor and chair of the teacher education department at Webster University.

Rodney warns education will have to shift to close the “wide gulf” of differences in how well-prepared children are when they do show up for school in the next few years.

“Whenever we get back to normal, we're going to have to have all kinds of remedial systems to support the kids that missed these experiences.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.