This Fall, the Return to Kindergarten Is More Limited Than We Hoped. What’s Next?
Policymakers and families alike had high hopes for the 2021–22 school year. Following a kindergarten exodus in 2020, it was to be a year of school reopening, an opportunity for recovery, and a chance for childhood. For many, it has been. But new data show some kindergarten-age children are sitting out this year, too. Without flexible supports and a focus on safety, disruptions could stretch on for another year (or more) in the lives of our youngest students.
Missing kindergarten in 2021
Eighteen months into the pandemic, national data show 12 percent of parents are waiting until next fall (2022) to enroll their children in kindergarten. That’s twice the share who waited to enroll in 2010 (the most recent prepandemic year of data available), down from three times as many in 2020. Findings were nearly identical across racial and ethnic groups, by household income, and parents’ employment status.
These findings come from a survey from the University of Oregon’s Center for Translational Neuroscience. The Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development (RAPID) - Early Childhood Survey is designed to gather essential information regarding the needs, health promoting behaviors, and well-being of families with children ages 5 and younger during the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.
“He isn’t ready socially or academically, and I feel tremendously guilty about that.”
—Parent responding to the RAPID-EC survey during the week of June 21
The RAPID survey asked families about their enrollment choices, as well as reasons behind those choices, and what families were doing instead of kindergarten. Among parents who reported waiting to enroll, 57 percent attributed their decision to safety. Slightly fewer, 48 percent, said it was because of uncertainty about the plan for school and whether it would be held in person or online. Twenty-six percent specified other reasons for delayed enrollment, including limited preparation because of lack of preschool, concerns about masking, and a desire for kindergarten to be “more ‘normal.’”
Among families waiting to enroll in kindergarten, 38 percent planned to have children remain at home with a parent, and 31 percent opted to take an extra year in preschool. About 20 percent of families selected home- or center-based child care. Of the 11 percent of families with other arrangements, half were planning to homeschool.
How policymakers can support the return to kindergarten
Although schools have reopened, 12 percent of families with kindergarten-age children report waiting until next fall (2022) to enroll. This hesitancy poses new challenges to pandemic recovery. Because kindergarten has become the new first grade and a key remedy for early achievement disparities (PDF), the long-term success of our future citizens and workforce depends on a full and speedy return to kindergarten.
To support families, early educators, and elementary school administrators, policymakers can:
- Address parents’ safety concerns. RAPID data clearly identified safety concerns as the cause of kindergarten delay for most families opting out this year. But more research is needed to understand specific concerns and potential solutions. For some families, an improved public health situation and robust child vaccine rollout could give children the extra protection their parents need to feel safe about returning to school. But ongoing shortages and vaccine hesitancy pose challenges. For other families, school mask mandates, social distancing, and testing requirements may be the key to feeling safe. And for others, the health of teachers and school staff or feeling safe from discrimination (PDF) may be paramount. Understanding and addressing specific safety concerns can support the return to kindergarten.
- Prioritize transparency and predictability. The rise of the delta variant undeniably complicated school reopening this fall. Rolling quarantines and shifting quarantine policy not only disrupted children’s educational experiences but also upended families’ ability to work, caregiving responsibilities, and efforts to find a “new normal” after 18 months of anything but. Ongoing concerns about virtual or hybrid instruction for young learners have created hesitancy, too. And now staffing shortages and burnout are causing further disruptions. In addition to addressing safety issues that undermine reopening, policymakers can prioritize transparency and predictability in developing school and staffing plans that restore some certainty in the lives of children and families.
- Build in flexibility to meet families where they are. RAPID data show that children are experiencing a range of alternatives to kindergarten for a range of reasons. The most common alternatives include staying home and spending an extra year in preschool, often because parents worry that the lost 2020–21 school year has left their children unprepared. Information campaigns can help dispel this myth, and early educators need the resources (PDF) to welcome all students into the kindergarten classroom and serve them well. Flexible enrollment dates and registration supports can further boost the return to kindergarten so families don’t have to wait until fall 2022. And for those families with medical vulnerability, policymakers can consider ongoing virtual options and an enhanced focus on the safety and rigor of homeschooling.
The return to kindergarten remains one of many priorities for recovery. But for the children who first experienced the pandemic as toddlers, a safe, predictable, and flexible start to school could not be more pressing.
The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success.
LONG BEACH, CA - AUGUST 31: Kindergarten students line up for class at Webster Elementary School on the first day of the Fall semester for Long Beach Unified School District in Long Beach on Tuesday, August 31, 2021. (Photo by Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images)