Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Enrollment numbers show thousands of Utah children missed out on kindergarten last year because of the pandemic, which could impact their learning for years to come.
So, will they be ready or not as students head back to school?
Marcello clicked on his computer program to identify the letter "C." Applause confirmed he chose the right letter.
"It's helping me read," he proclaimed proudly.
Marcello is one of thousands of Utah children who lost learning opportunities during COVID. He struggled when part of his kindergarten was online. His mom, Erika Aleman, was worried at first.
"Having it look like there would be no classes, and he'd basically lose the school year," she said.
The Davis School District also had concerns. Of its 20,000 students in pre-K through third grade, 5,000 were identified as not reading at grade level.
"Our littlest learners are the ones who didn't get all the academic attention that they needed to get," said Belinda Kuck, director of teaching and learning.
But those were just the students they knew about.
During the pandemic, Davis District's kindergarten enrollment dropped a whopping 22 percent. More than 1,100 5- and 6-year-olds didn't get their start to school.
KSL-TV surveyed most of Utah's largest school districts and found a similar situation:
- Salt Lake District — enrollment dropped 20%
- Ogden District — enrollment dropped 19%
- Granite District — enrollment dropped 16%
- Jordan, Alpine and Canyons all saw smaller declines, but still lost hundreds of kindergartners
The Utah State Board of Education reports statewide kindergarten enrollment dropped 9.7 percent during the 2020-2021 school year.
In what the New York Times calls the "Kindergarten Exodus," nationwide data suggests kindergarten enrollment declined 9.3%.
So, what's the big deal about children missing kindergarten?
"What they learn between kindergarten and third grade will affect everything else they do," said Kuck.
In Utah, kindergarten isn't mandatory, so many parents pulled their children to homeschool during the pandemic. Others simply sat out the pandemic, and in some districts, students' only choice was home school.
Among all those reasons, students of color were three times more likely to stay home than return to school in person, according to a survey of 677 school districts by the Associated Press and Chalkbeat.
So, the COVID impact exacerbated the learning gap for many of the most at-risk students.
Salt Lake kindergarten teacher Hannah Wille said she's concerned about those children getting left behind. "If a student isn't on grade level by a certain age, then that deficit just keeps growing, and it becomes exponentially harder for a student to catch up," she said.
Several studies underscore that concern. Seventy-four percent of children who are still struggling by third grade won't ever catch up.
Utah schools are taking unprecedented measures to get them ready for the upcoming school year.
In the Salt Lake School District, they offered full-day summer school and extended the program two extra weeks. They'll also continue after-school programs.
What they learn between kindergarten and third grade will affect everything else they do.
–Belinda Kuck, Davis School District
In the Davis District, in addition to summer school, students like Marcello participated in an online school readiness program called Waterford Upstart. The Utah program offers school districts and families software, hardware — if needed — and family coaching.
"It provides students with the strong foundation and also teachers with the data they need for further intervention, if they need it," said Jenni Torres, senior vice president of curriculum for Waterford.
Upstart has proven so successful, the Utah Legislature has increased funding. State and private funding will provide Upstart for free to any Utah family that wants it for their young learners.
Marcelo's mother said the program is helping him enter first grade prepared.
"It's going to pay off because he's received, and mom has supported and led and directed him in working in the Waterford program," said Kuck.
The other group that will be vital in making sure students are prepared is Utah's kindergarten teachers. Every year, they get students with a broad range of skills, so they are skilled at assessing students, and they clearly understand what is at stake.
"Early learning is so important — it gets our students off to the right start," said Holley McIntosh, math supervisor in the Salt Lake District. "It helps them develop good attitudes about school and it sets an academic foundation."