Did Your Kid Skip Preschool During the Pandemic? Here's What Parents Should Know

As the school year started, like so many people, it felt like my brain operated in a split screen — one in the present day and the other in March 2020. When the COVID-19 shutdown occurred, my daughter was a Pre-K student at an urban public school in the second-most populated city in New Jersey. While kindergarten was spent at an expensive “forest school” guided by Scandinavian principles, which meant lots of playtime and minimal academic pressure. I was just grateful it was open and in person. Now, in first grade at a traditional school, it’s clear that my daughter is behind in reading — and I’m worried about her keeping up with her class. 

The COVID-19 pandemic unfolded as educators, researchers, and politicians across the aisle honed in on a belief that early childhood education is critical, particularly preschool (which typically serves children between the ages of 3 and 5) and Pre-K (specified learning for older children that readies them for kindergarten), although both terms loosely describe education that takes places before kindergarten. In The American Families Plan, President Biden calls for free, universal Pre-K education, citing research on its benefits: Children who attend are less likely to repeat a grade while enrolled kids from low-income families out-perform their peers in math and reading — a difference that lasts through middle school. Meanwhile, preschool has its own benefits such as building social-emotional skills, providing valuable playtime, and teaching kids to follow directions. 

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has long taken a stand that early childhood education matters, stating in a 2011 report that “the most effective way to improve educational and economic opportunity for children — particularly disadvantaged children — is to provide high-quality early learning experiences that ensure a successful and seamless transition to elementary and secondary school, and beyond.” 

But despite the clear payoff of early childhood education, during the pandemic, preschool enrollment rates dropped for 4-year-old children. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, “Prior to the pandemic, 71 percent of 4-year-old children in the study attended a preschool program, a percentage similar to what other national surveys have found in recent years.  At the time of data collection, preschool participation in the fall of 2020 had fallen from 71 percent to 54 percent.” Study authors attributed the enrollment decline to facility closures, parental COVID safety concerns, and preschool funding cuts.

So if your child is entering kindergarten with a spottier education or none at all, does it really matter? Most experts say you don’t need to stress.

Look At The Big Picture

It can be tempting to use social media or analyze reading comprehension worksheets to determine whether your child is actually behind. But in doing this, you may overlook other critical skills, like socialization. “I wouldn’t be worried at all as a parent [if my kid has missed Pre-K],” Trenton Goble, a former elementary school principal and VP of K-12 strategy at Infrastructure, an educational technology company, tells SheKnows. “The early years of elementary school are focused on so much more than academics.”

Other experts agree. “I believe worrying about our young kids being behind academically is the wrong place to focus attention and resources right now,” Jeannine Jannot, Ph.D., a child psychologist and author of The Disintegrating Student tells SheKnows. “I’m more concerned with young children having a secure base from which to play, explore, and grow. Developmentally, play and socialization are the curriculum best suited to our youngest children who do not require a structured classroom or program. There are huge discrepancies in abilities across the early school years and by the third grade we tend to see the extremes average out.”

“There’s competition among parents, especially when it comes to reading.”

That said, parental anxiety is understandable. “There’s competition among parents, especially when it comes to reading,” says Goble. That’s because the subject is an easy benchmark to notice as some kids are book lovers while others have not yet mastered the ABC’s. However, it’s possible for parents to worry too early: according to the U.S. Department of Education, its not until age 8 that all children should be reading at grade level. Even so, experts still see discrepancies over when children actually get the hang of reading. That’s why Goble cautions parents against letting their anxiety show around children. “Make things fun. Read together, play games, ask questions about school,” he says. 

Partner With Teachers

It’s also important to remember that no one had an ideal school year in 2020 — including teachers. Everyone is juggling a new routine, and it may take a few weeks into the school year for kids to adjust, especially younger ones. Therefore, it’s wise for parents of toddlers to hang back and observe right now. 

“Instead of asking how your child is doing, ask what the benchmark is in the class,” Brian Galvin, Chief Academic Officer at Varsity Tutors, tells SheKnows. “Are kindergarteners expected to know their letters? This can give you a more objective viewpoint of where the class is.”

Teachers will also inform parents if kids are falling behind and it’s not always necessary to seek enrichment classes or tutoring right away. However, for parents who do pursue those options, it’s wise to loop in teachers so everyone is on the same page. 

Know That Learning Delays May Play Out in Policy Decisions

“Students are remarkably resilient so we need to be intentional not to slide back to what we used to do that wasn’t working,” Zora Wolfe, Ed.D., the director of K-12 Educational Leadership Programs and an associate professor at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, tells SheKnows. For example, one silver lining of distance learning was that teachers and parents could collaborate more often or in real time, and some parents had a front-row seat to their children’s education. “However, we also need to consider what we need to do to make up for lost learning time, which has disproportionately impacted children of color.” This means that correcting the effects of delayed learning due to the pandemic may play out in public policy, such as in President Biden’s universal pre-K initiatives. 

Finally, the effects of the pandemic will likely have lasting effects on education, with very young children being the first to experience the “new normal” for the entirety of their school careers. There may be more screen time, more technology, and more expectations for very young children to adapt to online learning solutions. In the coming years, schools may experiment with different learning modalities — and that’s not a bad thing. “Many teachers have discovered the benefits of utilizing technology and will continue to integrate new instructional strategies for learning,” notes Wolfe.

Bottom line: Some parents may always imagine what Pre-K or kindergarten could have looked like without the pandemic, but this year, children will learn resilience and flexibility alongside their ABCs. And those are lessons that aren’t taught in textbooks.

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