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Where are all the kindergartners? In a pandemic, some parents aren’t enrolling them in public school.

“I just feel like everything that makes kindergarten kindergarten isn’t there this year,” parent Brittny Phelps said. “Why go through the trouble of that? It wouldn’t have worked for us."

Philadelphia schools, like many in the region and across the nation, have seen a significant drop this year in kindergarteners. Domonique Goines' son Leonard Thomas-Bright, 6 (at left) would be attending kindergarten in the Philadelphia School District this year if not for the pandemic. Instead, his mother, at right, is homeschooling him and his brothers Isaac, 4, and Eli, 8.
Philadelphia schools, like many in the region and across the nation, have seen a significant drop this year in kindergarteners. Domonique Goines' son Leonard Thomas-Bright, 6 (at left) would be attending kindergarten in the Philadelphia School District this year if not for the pandemic. Instead, his mother, at right, is homeschooling him and his brothers Isaac, 4, and Eli, 8.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Reed Elton was supposed to start kindergarten this fall. Then COVID-19 hit.

Children in the Mantua Township School District in Gloucester County, where Reed was set to enroll, attend school virtually half the time and spend half their time in school buildings. Brittny Phelps, Reed’s mom, wasn’t comfortable with either of those things — she had safety concerns about her 5-year-old being in a school building during a pandemic and developmental concerns about him being in front of a computer for large chunks of time.

“Everything that makes kindergarten kindergarten isn’t there this year,” Phelps said. “Why go through the trouble of that? It wouldn’t have worked for us."

Kindergarten enrollment is down significantly this year in districts around the region and across the country, with families such as Reed’s choosing to forgo traditional programs, often because parents are wary of or unable to spend the time assisting children with the virtual or hybrid programs most schools are now offering.

In Philadelphia, where students are currently receiving no face-to-face instruction, overall district enrollment is down by about 5,000 students, with under 120,000 registered; Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said about 3,500 of those missing children are kindergartners.

Some missing kindergartners are being homeschooled instead of enrolling in district programs. Others are in private schools or day cares, or being “redshirted” — given an extra year of preschool with the intent of starting public kindergarten at age 6 instead of 5. And some children, experts say, are simply not attending school at all; kindergarten is not compulsory in either Pennsylvania or New Jersey.

It’s too soon for quantitative data, but early indicators show that it’s a pattern being repeated all over the country, said Rhian Evans Allvin, executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a Washington-based nonprofit.

» READ MORE: What does in-person school look like in the COVID-19 era? Here’s a look inside.

Children missing from kindergarten rolls and experiencing some high-quality private or home-based program don’t worry Evans Allvin. Those who are missing out do, especially given the crucial role of kindergarten as a building block for kids' cognitive and social and emotional development, as well as the evolution of their fine and gross motor skills and more.

“It’s startling to think of the learning gap that’s going to happen between this year and next year for children that are not in school or not attending because they don’t have the same social capital or affluence,” said Evans Allvin. “It is really worrisome for the children in more vulnerable circumstances.”

In Washington Township, 400 kindergartners have enrolled, down from 482 in 2019; Cherry Hill has 118 fewer students than it did last year, down from 756. In Lower Merion, kindergarten enrollment is about 50 students under projections, with 427 students on the books, 120 of whom are participating in one of the district’s virtual options.

Fewer students typically mean smaller kindergarten classes for those who do register; districts generally have not saved money by cutting teachers, despite the enrollment declines. In Philadelphia, officials believe some of the missing 3,500 students may show up once students begin returning to buildings, as early as November.

Lower Merion’s lower kindergarten numbers are actually helpful to the district, said Amy Buckman, district spokesperson; it means that kindergartners whose families did not elect the virtual option can attend school in person five days a week.

“The numbers are low enough that we can have a teacher or aide work with different students in small groups outside the main classrooms throughout the instructional day, leaving enough children in the classroom at one time to allow for adequate physical distancing,” Buckman said.

Phelps, who didn’t enroll her son in his Gloucester County public school as planned, developed her own lesson plans and teaches Reed in the mornings for about an hour before she goes to work as a hairstylist.

On a recent morning, he practiced writing the alphabet and did simple math problems.

“I feel like we’re covering all bases,” Phelps said.

Reed seems to enjoy learning at home and jumps into his schoolwork, his mother said. At bedtime, he asks: “Do we have school tomorrow?"

Phelps says she has challenges with being thrust into teaching but uses worksheets and internet programs to help. Reed misses the friends he made in preschool, but she plans to sign him up for street hockey to provide more social time. She plans to enroll him in public school next year, for first grade.

Domonique Goines had planned to have her son Leonard Thomas-Bright repeat kindergarten this fall. The boy is bright but struggled with inadequate support services in his Philadelphia public school, Goines said. When the pandemic began and schools shifted to remote learning, having Leonard spend another year in kindergarten seemed wise, she said.

» READ MORE: Substitute teachers are in high demand for school districts trying to fill vacancies in a pandemic

But the Philadelphia School District struggled to get remote learning off the ground, waiting weeks to begin formal, teacher-led work. So although she has three children and she and her husband both work full time, Goines, who lives in Mount Airy, began working with her son an hour a day. Leonard zoomed through the entire kindergarten math curriculum in six weeks and started gobbling up first-grade math and even coding.

Goines opted not to register Leonard for kindergarten after all. She’s homeschooling all three of her boys instead, and though she will likely send the oldest and youngest to public school eventually, she’ll continue teaching Leonard at home.

“Sometimes, we’re not done until 7 in the evening — it’s a struggle, but you can make it work,” said Goines, who works as a help-desk analyst. “I have a whole schedule, we block it out like they do high school, and we meet all the state requirements.”

COVID-19 caused Jennifer Shemtob’s tutoring business to boom, and a number of her clients are seeking help supporting kindergartners not enrolled in district programs. Shemtob runs Teacher Time to Go, which provides tutoring, enrichment, and homework help services either in clients' homes or remotely.

As a former Lower Merion and Philadelphia charter teacher, Shemtob knows how hard teachers in traditional schools are working to make virtual and hybrid learning as smooth as possible.

“Families overall are confident with the teachers they have, but the model is so hard, especially for kids at that age, who need manipulatives, who need small-group learning," said Shemtob. “Nothing’s ever going to beat the in-person, face-to-face interaction.”

One Philadelphia elementary school that usually has 60 kids filling three kindergarten classes has 19 this year, and only because school staff reached out to encourage families to register their 5-year-olds. For those working from home or juggling multiple caregiving responsibilities, supporting a kindergartner through a full day of instruction can be too much to ask, said the principal. “Let’s be real — the parents of a kindergarten student have to do most of the legwork,” said the principal, who asked not to be named in order to speak bluntly.

Kate LaMonaca knows the virtual model can be tough on her students but tries to provide as normal an experience as possible, with lessons on communications and fine motor skills, phonics, and math. LaMonaca, a veteran teacher at Indian Mills Elementary in Shamong, Burlington County, is teaching kindergarten for the first time in her career. She has a fully virtual class; her school has three other classes that meet both in person and virtually.

LaMonaca has two classes of eight students that meet for 2½ hours each, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Because her school uses a livestream teaching model, LaMonaca can’t limit their screen time, but she makes sure her students have periodic “movement and brain breaks” where they can turn off their cameras, walk around, or grab a snack.

“I’m trying to make it as authentic as possible, but it’s still through a screen,” said LaMonaca. “It’s a new adventure for everybody.”