Far fewer young children are attending public kindergarten and preschool programs this year, according to recently released data from the New Hampshire Department of Education. The decline is part of a state-wide trend of decreased public school enrollment during the pandemic that is most dramatic among younger grades.
Overall, 36 percent fewer kids are going to public preschool this year, and 14 percent fewer are attending public kindergarten. The trends varied by region, with the state’s largest cities seeing precipitous declines, and some towns in the North Country seeing no change or a slight increase.
Since preschool and kindergarten are optional in New Hampshire, it’s hard to know whether the changes in enrollment this year are due to families forgoing schooling altogether, or if many are choosing home schooling, learning pods, or private options instead.
Dr. Jess Carson, a research assistant professor at the Carsey School of Public Policy at UNH, says many families who would normally have sent their kids to preschool or kindergarten might have opted out because of COVID-19 restrictions in classrooms or the prospect of monitoring Zoom classes on remote learning days.
"It can be a big ask for parents to navigate that added layer [of virtual learning] at a time when everything is already really hard and people are already really burnt out," she says.
The result, she worries, is that fewer kids are getting the social and “soft” skills typically acquired in preschool and kindergarten.
"It’s not like we have this wonderful, robust, wide open, affordable childcare system that can scoop up the slack from kids who may not be enrolled in traditional pre-K through 12 settings right now,” she says. “We don’t have a back-up infrastructure for those.”
Plummeting enrollment also presents a thorny issue for districts currently in the midst of drafting budgets and planning staffing for the next academic year.
In Manchester and Nashua, for instance, enrollment declines exceed the statewide averages. But those districts have seen higher rates of COVID-19 than the rest of the state, and neither opened with fully in-person instruction in the fall. After the pandemic, their enrollment levels could come back to normal.
According to Carson, kindergarten classes in some districts could be larger than usual, as some families with 6-year old kids who stayed home this year push to enroll those kids in kindergarten rather than first grade.