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."