PHOENIX — A sharp drop in the number of youngsters in Arizona kindergartens this year due to COVID-19 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% from the same time a year earlier, the preliminary figure is about 14% for kindergarten.
Hoffman said parents are telling her that their concerns about the coronavirus are causing them to keep their children at home. That’s allowed as kindergarten 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, not only when they go into the first grade a year from now but 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 the schools chief 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.”
The schools chief said failing to pick up on those — and early — could come back to haunt those kids later on.
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.
“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.
But it remains the law.
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.
Hoffman isn’t the only one worried about youngsters missing out on what they learn in kindergarten. Christine Thompson, president and CEO of Expect More Arizona, an education advocacy group, said if youngsters don’t learn the basics in kindergarten, especially of 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.
Thompson said she’s sure there are programs that can help young children learn their letters and sounds.
“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,” she said.
And there’s a more practical concern.
“Being online can be really exhausting, especially in these really little kids,’’ Thompson said. And then there’s the fact that pediatricians have stressed 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.
“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.’’
And then there are the opportunities to learn skills that they’re unlikely to pick up at home like music and science and other specialties if parents don’t have the resources.
“I’m always going to advocate that school is incredibly important and we don’t want any child to be missing out on any of these opportunities,’’ Hoffman said. “But I can also understand why families are feeling uncertain or scared and making some really difficult decisions right now.’’
Hoffman also said if parents are still not comfortable with sending their youngsters to kindergarten this year she would prefer that they just wait a year and enroll them next year for the program and not just send them on to first grade.