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COVID-19 Lockdowns Devastating Impact on School Enrollment

By Molly Rovinski

The COVID-19 lockdowns have had a myriad of unintended consequences. From economic health to domestic violence, the toll has been significant. When the dust settles, one of the most devasting impacts might be on pre-kindergarten through 12th grade education. Between the 2019-2020 academic year and the 2020-2021 academic year, the Commonwealth witnessed an overall decline in public school enrollment of 2.21%. This drop is consistent with states across the nation. A recent study by NPR of twenty-three states and Washington, D.C. found a decline in public school enrollment of 3% over the same time period.

Across the country, this decline was largely driven by significant drops in enrollment at the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten levels. As learning became remote and parents began to work from home, families nationwide opted to remove their children from those grades that are not required or can be postponed. The U.S. Census Bureau released data in October of 2021 indicating a nationwide enrollment decline of 25% for pre-kindergarten and 9% for kindergarten. Kentucky saw similar declines with a 20.45% drop in pre-kindergarten enrollment and 6.71% in kindergarten enrollment. Overall, 16% of Kentuckians reported that at least one child could not attend daycare or other childcare arrangements because of the coronavirus pandemic. Pre-pandemic, Kentucky ranked 21st in a study of 43 states and Washington, D.C. for pre-kindergarten enrollment, with 17.6% of children aged three and four enrolled in state pre-k programs.

The figure below shows the enrollment differences in Kentucky for each grade level between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years, as provided by the Kentucky Department of Education. As the graph indicates, grades beyond kindergarten, though fluctuating slightly, did not experience nearly as dramatic a decline in enrollment as pre-kindergarten and kindergarten.

The implications of such a decline in children’s early education are daunting for future education trends. By the time that a child has reached five, the brain has reached 85% of growth, indicating that the early years of development are critical. The environment of early education programs is also a crucial step for children’s social development: for many children, the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms are the first places they step away from their parents and begin to interact with other children and teachers. A longitudinal study on school readiness and long-term achievement found that early education programs enhanced “physical, intellectual, and social competencies [for a] child’s overall developmental competence and readiness for school.” Pre-K offers the foundation for school readiness in four main areas: language and literacy, thinking skills, self-control, and self-confidence. Without exposure to these critical areas of development, children are missing the opportunity to learn how to effectively communicate their thoughts and emotions, engage in social situations, and explore new interests and challenges.

A recent study from the American Educational Research Association (AERA) has shown that early childhood education programs are likely to decrease grade repetition, drop-out rates, and special needs education enrollment. According to another study from the AERA, participation in early education programs contributed to an 8.1% drop in future special needs education and an 11.4% increase in high school graduations. It has also been shown that early childhood education improves earnings in the workforce, high school graduation rates, and health.

Such significant declines in enrollment in these early childhood education programs could have long lasting effects. A University of Virginia study anticipates that this decline in enrollment will result in a “25% increase in students failing to reach reading proficiency by end of [third grade].” Over the next three to five years, Kentucky must prioritize evaluating the development of children under the age of five to determine the impacts of this decline in participation in early childhood education programs. Moving forward, educators and parents alike will have to address the potential need for increased educational and developmental resources for children impacted by these enrollment drops during the pandemic.

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