The same decline Mesa Public Schools has seen in kindergarten enrollment is being echoed by a sharp drop in the number of kindergartners across Arizona this year due to COVID-19 – and it could have ripple effects for years to come on their education.
State schools chief Kathy Hoffman said while enrollment in public schools is down 5 percent from the same time a year earlier, the preliminary figure is about 14 percent for kindergarten.
Mesa administrators told the Governing Board in early summer that enrollment was in the district was down by 10 percent in kindergarten, though less than that at other school levels.
Overall enrollment decline in Mesa Public Schools could translate into at least a $20 million reduction in state funding in the 2021-22 school year, they said.
Mesa school officials did not respond to Tribune inquiries seeking an update on enrollment after Hoffman addressed the subject last week.
Hoffman said parents are telling her that their concerns about the coronavirus are causing them to keep their kindergarten-age children at home – which is optional.
But Hoffman, who as a speech therapist worked with young children, said there are major implications to skipping this stage of organized instruction.
And those who do not attend could end up with issues when they go into the first grade a year from now and even further down the road.
“One of the greatest benefits is the social and emotional learning and being able to play with other kids,’’ she said. But Hoffman said parents also are worried about the spread of the virus in the classroom.
But Hoffman said she remains convinced the best bet is to get those kids into kindergarten for at least a few hours a day.
“Some of the most important skills that they’re learning are the letter sounds, the name for the letters and the alphabet,’’ she said. Kids also start reading their first simple words.
“They’re learning to count objects and they’re learning what numbers look like and how to name numbers,’’ Hoffman continued. “So those are very important foundational skills as they go through the grades.’’
Central to that is Move On When Reading. That law says students cannot be promoted from the third grade if they score “far below’’ that grade reading level on the statewide assessment.
Hoffman’s not a big fan of the law.
“Our kids come from so many different backgrounds,’’ she said. “The kids that are struggling readers are typically coming from disadvantaged homes.’’
More kids starting regular school without the benefits of what kindergarten can teach, Hoffman said, could lead in a few years to more youngsters being told they’re not going on to the fourth grade.
“And it is a huge social and emotional impact on students to be held back a grade,’’ she said.
Then there are the less measurable but also equally important social skills.
“They’re also learning how to be a student,’’ Hoffman said.
“They’re learning to get in line, they’re learning to take turns, to share, to problem solve,’’ she explained. Even learning how to have social interactions with other kids, Hoffman said, is “very critical.’’
“I think all the impact of what we’re seeing right now is yet to be seen,’’ she said.
Christine Thompson, president and CEO of Expect More Arizona, an education advocacy group, said if youngsters don’t learn the basics in kindergarten – especially letter recognition and reading – it’s going to “take a lift’’ to ensure that they’re not held back in third grade.
For parents who don’t want to send their kindergarten students into classrooms, there are online options. But Thompson doesn’t see that as a realistic option for picking up reading skills.
“When you think about how technologically savvy you have to be in order to navigate the web, it’s really falling on parents to help them,’’ she said.
“But you really need those educators with kids, helping to identify what the challenges are or what things are going to get a kid hooked on reading or really understanding the contents that are so incredibly important, especially in those really early years,’’ Thompson said.
And there’s a more practical concern.
“Being online can be really exhausting, especially in these really little kids,’’ Thompson said.
Pediatricians also stress the importance of young children having only limited screen time.
“To go from that to having school online is a massive shift,’’ she said. “So, we’re going to have a lot of ground to make up.’’
Hoffman said her message to parents planning to keep their kindergartners at home would be to reconsider.
“As far as we can tell from the research that’s been done this year, the spread of COVID-19 is extremely low for the K thru eighth grades,’’ she said.
“Missing out on a whole year of school can have detrimental effects in the long term,’’ Hoffman continued. “And school provides such amazing opportunities and wrap-around support for our kids, not just academically but also socially.’’
Tribune Executive Editor Paul Maryniak contributed to this report.