Coronavirus causing enrollment drop for kindergarten in central Ohio

Hilliard City Schools kindergarten teacher Nicolette Landon (center) teaches a writing lesson Nov. 2 as students stand socially distanced as part of COVID-19 coronavirus precautions.

They registered him for kindergarten with months to spare.

Academically and socially, they knew he was ready for school.

But as a family, they soon realized they weren't ready for the risks that could come with it, said Amanda Talicska, 34.

As COVID-19 coronavirus cases increased in central Ohio over the summer, Talicska and her husband, Andy, decided it was not the right time to enroll their 5-year-old son, August, in the Gahanna-Jefferson Public School District.

The couple, who also have 2-year-old twins, withdrew his registration at the last minute. Instead, they're homeschooling him.

"We probably spent every night for a month talking about what we were going to do," Talicksa said. "We have an extremely high-risk family member, my mother-in-law, and we didn't want to take the option of seeing her grandchildren away from her. We felt like if we sent him to school, that was what was going to happen."

Kindergarten-enrollment decline

Many central Ohio families with 5-year-olds faced similar dilemmas this school year.

Nearly every local school district has experienced a drop in kindergarten enrollment, despite typically booming enrollment districtwide, according to data districts provided in late September. Of 19 area districts, only two saw an increase in kindergartners.

Gahanna-Jefferson experienced a dip of 4% in its kindergarten class size. But many districts experienced significant decline, with percentages in the double digits.

Groveport Madison, with a 43% drop, saw the largest plunge in the area, with about 240 kindergartners compared to more than 400 last year.

Other districts with large declines include Hilliard and Whitehall, at 29%; Reynoldsburg, with 22; and Bexley, with 20%. Columbus, the state's largest district, dipped 16%, or nearly 600 children.

Only Canal Winchester and Dublin saw increases of 22% and 2%, respectively.

Children in Ohio aren’t legally required to start school until they're 6 years old. But if they turn 5 years old by a specific cutoff date, families may, and typically do, choose to enroll them early. 

School officials said the uncertainty of the pandemic likely is causing many families to hold back their children. It's a trend many schools have reported nationwide.

"When you look at the situation we're in, I do understand why some of our parents might make that choice, especially working parents," Groveport Madison Superintendent Garilee Ogden said, noting this year's challenging schedules.

Because of the pandemic, most districts in central Ohio are operating in a format called "hybrid" or "blended" learning. Students are divided into groups and attend in-person classes two or three times each week and learn remotely from home the other days.

Depending on COVID-19 spread in a community, officials said this summer, they might switch among this model, completely online and completely in-person classes.

Though state funding for Ohio's schools is based on enrollment, officials said they don't expect the dip to affect their budgets much.

Following action from legislators in the spring, funding for the 2020-21 school year is frozen at 2019-20 levels – minus the combined $300 million Gov. Mike DeWine had cut from school budgets in May due to declining state revenue.

It is possible some funds could be lost, however, if instead of enrolling in their home district, students enrolled in a public charter school or used a state tax-funded voucher to cover tuition at a private school.

The base reduction for charter-school students is $6,020, whereas vouchers cost a district up to $4,650 for a student in grades K-8 and $6,000 for high school students. 

"We don't know yet because data for this year is just rolling in," said Howard Fleeter, a school-finance consultant with the Ohio Education Policy Institute.

The Ohio Department of Education will post this school year's official enrollment figures in January, spokeswoman Mandy Minick said.

Despite public concerns about an exodus of children from public schools for other options, local officials said kindergarten seems to be the only grade significantly affecting this year's enrollment. 

In Whitehall, for example, a district of about 3,200 students, kindergartners accounted for two-thirds of its overall drop of 121 students.

"We've weathered the COVID budget cuts," Whitehall treasurer John Walsh said. "We think we're on the upside from where we were in May."

Charter-school enrollment is up nearly 6,800 students this year, or about 6%, for 113,000 total students, according to preliminary statewide data, with 84% of the increase attributed to new students enrolled in Ohio Virtual Academy. That online charter school's enrollment has increased 48%, from about 11,800 students to 17,500.

That's despite charter-school enrollment, especially brick-and-mortar charter schools, declining in recent years, Fleeter said.

Statewide, about 1.7 million children attend public schools. Statewide homeschooling data for this school year isn't yet available.

Prepared for learning 

Rather than finances, Ogden said, her top concern is ensuring this year's kindergartners are prepared for learning, despite starting school during a traumatic time.

In her district, only 22% of kindergartners arrived with the expected literacy skills for their age, according to a state assessment. In the previous three years, that figure hovered around 40%.

The issue could be twofold, she said.

In March, state officials ordered all school buildings closed for the remainder of the school year due to the pandemic. That included preschools. Families, meanwhile, might be struggling to find time to help young children learn due to stress and job demands.

"We're really going to have to examine our early childhood practices," Ogden said. "It will be more important than ever this year, and in the coming years, with these new little ones."

Sarah Pontious, outreach and engagement coordinator for Action for Children, suspects parents simply are keeping children home rather than turning to other group settings. The nonprofit child-care-referral agency, which provides support for area families and providers, hasn't seen an influx of requests for 5-year-olds, she said.

"If parents are holding their kids back from school, that doesn't necessarily mean they're turning to child care," she said.

In fact, only 54% of the overall available spaces in programs are filled, Pontious said.

The Columbus Metropolitan Library is offering a self-paced "ready-for-kindergarten" class on its website in hopes of bridging some gaps.

It typically hosts a camp at seven branches over the summer for prospective kindergartners, but this year, it had to shift the program entirely online. That allowed staff members to reach more families than usual, though – about 400 instead of the typical 150, said Cassi Barok, leader of the library system's young-minds program.

Hilliard City Schools kindergarten teacher Nicolette Landon shows students how to use a stylus before a writing lesson Nov. 2

John Marschhausen, superintendent of the Hilliard school district, said this year's kindergarten drop of 29% will require staff and building adjustments in the years ahead.

Once the pandemic is resolved, it is likely schools could see a swell of kindergartners, after families again are comfortable with sending their 5-year-olds, he said.

"We're already planning for what that bubble might look like next year ... and the impact as this class advances through our schools," Marschhausen said. "One year, we'll have a really small graduating class, and the next year, we may have to add some seats to the floor at the (Jerome) Schottenstein Center, for potentially one of our biggest classes ever."

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