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Thousands of kindergartners didn’t show up for school last year. Here’s what that means for the school year to come.

“We do expect there to be a gap, different from the normal summer gap,” a Norristown first grade teacher said.

Teacher Donna Roth works with children in her classroom during a kindergarten enrichment program at Musselman Learning Center in Norristown. Nationwide, kindergarten enrollment declined last year because of the pandemic, which disrupted education and kept some parents from enrolling their children in early childhood educational experiences.
Teacher Donna Roth works with children in her classroom during a kindergarten enrichment program at Musselman Learning Center in Norristown. Nationwide, kindergarten enrollment declined last year because of the pandemic, which disrupted education and kept some parents from enrolling their children in early childhood educational experiences.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Inside Kelly Espinoza’s classroom, a handful of kindergartners painstakingly threaded colorful plastic beads onto pipe cleaners, counting each as their teacher called out encouragement, moving from desk to desk.

“Angel, you have 17! That’s so many, buddy,” said Espinoza, a teacher at Musselman Learning Center in Norristown.

COVID-19 caused widespread disruption last school year, moving millions of children’s education online for all or part of the year. It also meant thousands of parents unable to navigate child care, work, and the rigors of remote school did not or could not enroll their children in early childhood programs last year. Kindergarten, which is not compulsory in either Pennsylvania or New Jersey, was particularly affected.

This year, many schools will cope with the consequences.

“We’ve all got a lot of work to do,” said A. Brooks Bowden, assistant professor in the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

Philadelphia saw a dramatic drop in kindergarten enrollment: 30%. The School District had 7,000 kindergartners in the fall of 2020, and 9,949 in 2019, according to state data.

Norristown had a much more modest decline, but kindergarten enrollment dropped about 8%, from 563 kindergartners in the fall of 2019 to 520 in the fall of 2020.

It’s too soon to say whether kindergarten enrollment will bounce back fully for this school year, or whether the delta variant will keep students away from school buildings again. But on the first day the district opened registration for a summer “kindergarten boot camp” to prep students for the coming school year, 48 families whose children had never been to preschool registered, said Tracy Richardson, Norristown’s director of teaching and learning.

It’s difficult to tell how many of those children would have enrolled in preschool programs last year if not for the pandemic, but Richardson said the district was eager to use $38,000 in federal COVID-19 recovery funds to give 100 students a leg up.

Students worked on academic basics in the Norristown program — recognizing letters, writing their names, counting — but also on social and emotional skills, on learning how to walk down the hallway, use a public bathroom, raise their hands, interact with other children.

“Because of the pandemic, a lot of kids haven’t been able to spend time with peers their own age,” said Christi Fox, a Norristown kindergarten teacher.

New Jersey saw a 9% drop in kindergarten enrollment statewide, and an analysis by the Education Law Center shows that many students also missed out on prekindergarten programs, especially districts where large numbers of students live in poverty. Statewide, enrollment dropped by 11% for 4-year-olds in the neediest districts in 2020, and by 34% for 3-year-olds, according to an analysis by the nonprofit.

That troubles Danielle Farrie, research director at the Education Law Center.

“Far too many youngsters missed out on the educational and social-emotional benefits of preschool and kindergarten last year,” said Farrie. “Now, the state must make certain districts have the resources and supports needed to give these children one-to-one attention and accelerate their cognitive and emotional growth.”

Last year, Camden had seats available for 2,465 3- and 4-year-olds at district and private programs, said Superintendent Katrina McCombs. Only 1,433 preschoolers enrolled, she said. Prior to the pandemic, Camden had 2,300 preschoolers.

McCombs attributed the decline to the pandemic and said many parents were uncomfortable with virtual learning for youngsters or don’t see the need for preschool. Camden, like other economically distressed New Jersey districts, offers free universal preschool.

“Some families just found it to be very challenging,” McCombs said. Camden’s kindergarten enrollment for the coming year has improved, the superintendent said, with about 631 students enrolled so far. Enrollment dropped last year to 485 kindergartners, compared with about 586 before the pandemic.

A former kindergarten teacher, McCombs said early childhood education is crucial to leveling the playing field by promoting school readiness.

“I see it in cities like Camden as an opportunity for kids to get a strong start in education,” she said. “It’s not mandated, but I think it should be.”

At the Acelero Learning Academy in East Camden, a private provider that operates five Head Start sites in the city, preschoolers wrapped up a summer school readiness program this week.

“It’s the best gift we can give our children,” said Reina Albino, the center’s Head Start director.

In one classroom, lead teacher Rachel Hynes and two assistants led story time, an exercise session, and played alphabet bingo to help three girls, all age 4, pick out letters.

“F is for frog,” Hynes said, pointing to a card as the group sat at a small table.

“I don’t like frogs,” responded Geishaliz Lopez-Ostolaza, drawing laughter.

Summer programs can help, but teachers are bracing for a year of making up ground. Jamie Gillespie, a Norristown first-grade teacher, has been spending the summer planning for what’s to come.

The early school years are crucial for myriad reasons, from mastering which way you hold a book and which way text moves to learning group rules and how many paper towels to grab after you wash your hands. Kindergarten is often when educators begin to pick up on potential learning differences.

“We do expect there to be a gap, different from the normal summer gap,” said Gillespie, who also taught in the kindergarten enrichment program at Musselman. But the speed with which her summer charges, none of whom had been to preschool, picked up new skills and the excitement they felt to be in school gave her confidence.

Norristown said that after just a few days, kindergartners in the program had made real strides, both socially and academically.

“As teachers, we have to remember that kids did gain skills, just in different areas,” said Gillespie. “We’re going to have to differentiate our classes accordingly.”

Bowden, the Penn professor, is also the parent of two children in the Philadelphia School District, so she had a front-row seat to the triumphs and challenges of the last pandemic school year.

“In my son’s first-grade class, it was one teacher with 28 kids,” said Bowden. “That to me sounds really difficult when some of the schools will have a large chunk of kids who haven’t been to school.”

Much of the billions in federal COVID-19 relief money flowing into schools will be targeted to compensate for pandemic learning gaps. Bowden thinks educator coaches, tutoring services, and supports for families can go a long way, she said.

Christopher Dormer, Norristown superintendent, said district data show that students who attended regularly typically made grade-level progress last school year, but attendance-challenged children will have a ways to go. The district is planning three or four days of free tutoring to keep students moving forward.

“To me, it’s not about dumbing down the curriculum or saying, ‘We didn’t cover this, we’re going to take steps backward,’ it’s about meeting kids where they’re at,” said Dormer.

Many districts report increased kindergarten demand this year, despite the continued presence of COVID-19.

The Cinnaminson school district expects to reach capacity for its first full-day kindergarten program with about 190 students, said Superintendent Stephen Cappello.

“We’re growing day by day,” Cappello said.

Cinnaminson hired four additional kindergarten teachers and assistants and set up portable classrooms outside the New Albany School to house the expanded program, he said. (Cinnaminson actually saw a slight increase in kindergartners last year, with 160 children enrolled in 2020-21 and 153 the year prior.)

And while some parents say kids kept out of school last year will be playing catch-up, others say the year away was actually good for them.

Brittny Phelps has no regrets about teaching her son Reed, 6, at home for kindergarten rather than enrolling him in public schools in Mantua, Gloucester County. Both Phelps and Reed’s grandmother, a retired kindergarten teacher, helped keep the boy on track.

“He’s reading, writing, and spelling,” said Phelps, a hair stylist. “He is so good at math that he gets bored. He breezes right through it.”

Phelps said Reed is ready for first grade and will attend public school. He attended preschool full time so that should make his transition easier, she said.

“He’s very excited to go back to school and make friends and be with other kids,” Phelps said.