Kindergarten enrollments are down during the pandemic

School leaders across Idaho say kindergarten enrollments are down from last school year, in some schools by over 100 kids.

The state will release official enrollment numbers later this month, but several early tallies indicate more parents are keeping their youngest children home during a global pandemic.

Kindergarten is optional in Idaho, where kids aren’t required to attend school until age 6. The state pays for half-day kindergarten so schools must choose to use supplementary funds for full-day options.

Last year, most Idaho schools offered full-day kindergarten to at least some of their students, in part through a multimillion-dollar program for at-risk readers.

Enrollment drops following a widespread push for full-day kindergarten are now a point of concern for one reading expert.

“It may take years to bounce back from the impacts this is having on our kindergarteners,” said Beth Oppenheimer, executive director of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children.

Here’s a closer look at some preliminary enrollment numbers and what remains to be known about the declines.

Some steep drops from last year

EdNews last week gathered current kindergarten enrollments from a handful of districts across Idaho. Several reported notable declines. Here’s a snapshot of changes:

District  Current enrollment Last year’s enrollment Change from last year
West Ada 2,297 2,623 -326
Pocatello-Chubbuck 800 915 -115
Coeur d’Alene 590 788 -198
Idaho Falls 696 675 +21
Cassia County 420 358 -62
Twin Falls 540 696 -156

Each of these districts enrolls at least some of its kindergarteners in their own remote learning programs made available during the pandemic — something Idaho Falls spokeswoman Margaret Wimborne credited for her district’s slight uptick from last year.

“It’s hard to know what those parents would have done if we didn’t have an online option available,” she said, adding that 62 of the district’s kindergarteners are now participating remotely.

Cassia County’s online alternative could not curb the decline, spokeswoman Debbie Critchfield noted.

She pointed to concerns from families during registration that the pandemic would prompt a midyear shift to remote learning anyway, so they decided to wait and see what conditions would be like later.

The Boise School District did not respond to requests for kindergarten enrollment data, but Oppenheimer, a trustee in the district, said parents have expressed fears about getting sick to justify keeping their kids home.

A decline or a shift?

Despite notable declines across Idaho, it’s too early to say how many kindergarteners are skipping the school year or simply shifting to remote-learning options.

Enrollments at Idaho’s virtual schools have spiked during COVID-19. Signs of where kids are going will become more clear when the statewide enrollment picture comes into view in the coming weeks.

But it is clear that COVID-19 has prompted some families to skip at least part of the school year.

“We don’t want people to judge us,” said a Pocatello parent, who asked to remain anonymous and is keeping her kindergartener home because of a local mask mandate.

Oppenheimer stressed that wherever kids are going, repercussions will follow. She pointed to the social benefits in-person instruction provides for young kids who interact daily with peers and educators.

“Kids may be still learning their ABCs and 123s at home or through an online platform,” she told EdNews, adding that “kindergarten is often a child’s introduction to early education. If kindergarteners think learning through a computer is how education is, how will that impact them moving forward?”

Further reading: A recent national sample suggested as many as 600,000 students might be skipping kindergarten this school year, The 74 recently reported.

Devin Bodkin

About Devin Bodkin

Reporter Devin Bodkin covers education issues in East Idaho. He is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He is a 2019 Solutions Journalism Network fellow and the Idaho Press Club's 2019 print reporter of the year. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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