AILSA CHANG, HOST:
It's almost the end of July, which means that schools across the country are already preparing for students to come back. A big question is, how many students? Enrollment in kindergarten fell last year, and many educators are wondering whether they will see a big jump in those youngest students this year. NPR's Clare Lombardo reports.
CLARE LOMBARDO, BYLINE: Elia Garrison's son Dominic is heading to kindergarten in the fall, and he says he's most excited about two things.
DOMINIC GARRISON: Playing games and playing with my friends.
LOMBARDO: Playing games and playing with his friends. Dominic just turned 6, and he could have headed to kindergarten last fall in Perkasie, Pa. But his parents decided to hold him back for an extra year, a practice called redshirting. They first heard about that option before the pandemic. And Elia says her husband Ray was hesitant at first.
ELIA GARRISON: You know, we grew up '80s and '90s, where you just don't do that.
LOMBARDO: But the longer they thought about it, the more that seemed like the right decision for Dominic. He didn't seem quite ready to start school.
GARRISON: And then, well, COVID hit, and I didn't know what school would look like. And I think that definitely cemented my idea of why I wanted to hold him back.
LOMBARDO: Elia heard from other parents in her district who did the same thing, and it turns out families across the country did, too. Nationally, public kindergarten enrollment dropped 9%, and preschool enrollment dropped even more - 22%, according to preliminary federal data. It's not clear where all these students went. Some would-be kindergartners, like Dominic, stayed in pre-K. Others were homeschooled. Some went to private school, and lots of kids didn't have much structure at all.
BETH TARASAWA: So the - I think the real kind of crystal ball moment or question, you might say, would be, are we expecting those kids to return this fall? And if so, what is that going to do to this next cohort?
LOMBARDO: That's Beth Tarasawa, who leads research at the education nonprofit NWEA. She says researchers are keeping an eye out for how all these patterns are going to impact kids as time goes on.
TARASAWA: But more importantly, it's also how are we meeting these kids' needs in the next year? And that's from the educators who are serving them, how school districts can plan for maybe more headcount than they typically would expect.
LOMBARDO: Lots of districts are watching for a possible boost in kindergarten enrollment, but it's too soon to say if that will actually happen. In Indianapolis, where numbers fell last year, current enrollment isn't much higher than a typical school year - same with Nashville. What we do know is that kids did lots of different things last year, so schools are getting prepared to meet them where they are.
BRITTANY LARSEN: If they can write their name tells me a lot, right?
LOMBARDO: Brittany Larsen is a kindergarten teacher in Nashville.
LARSEN: That tells me their fine motor. That tells me their letter ID recognition. Sometimes you say, write your name, and they write their whole name, or they write a sentence, or they draw themselves. So that can tell you a lot.
LOMBARDO: Larsen says last school year, when her students finally came to learn in person...
LARSEN: Because of the pandemic and the lack of social interaction for young kids, we had to focus a lot more on those soft skills, like communicating with their peers, tattling versus telling, how to advocate for yourself, how to stand up for yourself.
LOMBARDO: That's why this year they're focusing on those areas.
LARSEN: We've been really intentional, my team, thinking about how we can teach. It's called SEL skills - social emotional learning skills.
LOMBARDO: In Perkasie, Pa., Dominic's first day of school is August 30. He's excited because some of his friends from pre-K will be going to school with him. His mom, Elia, says this year he's ready and he's got the basics down.
DOMINIC: D, O, M, I, N, I and C.
GARRISON: Good job, Dominic.
LOMBARDO: Clare Lombardo, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF YEAH YEAH YEAHS SONG, "DRAGON QUEEN")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.