Where did the kindergartners go?

A significant drop in public school enrollment during the pandemic, but statewide count is improving
Posted at 10:58 PM, Nov 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-18 18:06:38-05

TUCSON, Ariz. — The kindergarten drop is a huge concern for districts.

Superintendents are tacking that issue now not only in Southern Arizona, but across the state, because it has a profound affect on student academics and district budgets.

When COVID stormed in it hit kindergarten counts pretty hard throughout Arizona.

The Sunnyside District had already seen small declines over 6 years, but this year the drop is significant.

Sunnyside Superintendent Steve Holmes said, “We’re at about a 8 to 9% drop in Kinder numbers.”

That’s the average percentage (8%) statewide, which is down from 14% earlier in the school year.

Sahuarita District took a huge hit. The kindergarten count dropped 31 percent while overall enrollment is down 10 percent.

Tucson Unified lost about 19 percent as well as Flowing Wells.

Catalina Foothills sits at 10 percent.

We’re still waiting to hear from other Southern Arizona districts.

So why are parents keeping their Kinders at home?

State Superintendent Kathy Hoffman says parents are telling her they’re keeping their kids at home because of COVID concerns.

Kindergarten is not required, so it’s allowed.

Holmes said, “I feel parents are holding back on sending their children to school, particularly if they’re the only child or first child.”

That's known as redshirting.

School leaders nationwide have also speculated a move to charter schools, private schools or private programs.

But Holmes says the question is difficult for districts to answer, because if Kinders are not in the school system yet, they’re not tracked.

“If they haven’t enrolled with us, then we won’t see a withdrawal report, right? So these are all anecdotes,” said Holmes.

Holmes and Hoffman are worried about possible long-term ripple effects. If kids leap-frog into first grade, they might not be ready for the academic rigor that awaits them.

It’s very critical for children to learn how to be a student not only academically, but socially.

If students score “far below” in the state reading assessment by end of third grade, by law, they will be held back.

Holmes says without knowing where, when and what grade these kinder-aged kids will enroll, it’s difficult to budget and staff for the next school year.

“Does that signal a trend of decline in enrollment long term or does that mean once this pandemic is over students will come back in first grade, right? And we can’t make those assumptions," Holmes said, "Kinder is a number we keep our eye on every year and that’s why this year is so important and why districts are paying attention right now."