By Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics
Are children getting left behind during the pandemic? While the majority of public school programs have been conducted virtually for nearly a year, there are concerns that a lack of quality in-person early childhood education will have detrimental effects on the economy, as we move ill-equipped students toward graduation and full-time employment. This problem is seen all too well at the pre-kindergarten (Pre-K) levels.
Start an education program at American Public University.
Are Pre-K Programs Needed?
Pre-K programs help instill an early love for learning through enjoyable age-appropriate songs, rhymes, games, crafts, interactive circle times and purposeful play for each child. Activities encourage participation in major areas of learning such as personal and social development, letter and number recognition, and motor skills development.
Pre-K curriculum children learn best through exploration with a mix of auditory, visual and kinesthetic activities. Key Pre-K activities include circle times, playground time, snack time and center time.
Traditional Pre-K Programs
Historically, a Pre-K curriculum included coloring, tracing, cutting and pasting, crafts and fun snacks, and trips to the playground, local park, or the library. But these efforts have been curtailed for the current academic year primarily because of the pandemic.
Early efforts to engage students in the classroom have distinct, long-lasting effects, with school districts emphasizing that engagement is essential. Connecting with students early has long-lasting effects through the K-12 pipeline.
School district officials, such as Petal School District Supervisor Matt Dillon in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, have reported progress. “We’ve seen the fruits of our labor in this district because of some of our early efforts in working with these kids,” Dillon said.
Expanding School Programming
Several states have invested time and money to expand Pre-K programs from a half day to a full day. In Texas, as the Dallas Morning News reported, school districts were supposed to use an additional $600 for each student who came for a low-income family or was learning English and $1,200 for students who qualified for both funding to better prepare students in their earliest years of school.
However, the Dallas Morning News also says that “Pre-K enrollment has also been down throughout Texas and the country during the pandemic. About 40% of the enrollment loss in the state’s public schools comes from kindergarten and pre-K.”
The Future of Pre-K Programs
Some schools are already accepting Pre-K applications for the September start of the 2021 academic year, even though enrollment numbers are down. “In the wake of the Chinese [sic] coronavirus pandemic, Oklahoma’s annual student count shows its first decrease in overall public school enrollment in 19 years,” the Tulsa Beacon reported.
According to the Beacon, Pre-K and kindergarten accounted for 75% of the decreased enrollment In Oklahoma, with 4,734 fewer Pre-K students and 2,381 fewer kindergartners enrolled in 2020-21 than in 2019-20, suggesting parents are choosing to delay the entry of their 4- and 5-year-olds into school.
Parents are opting for more traditional childcare methods, the Beacon noted, such as using a family member or a small collective of like-minded parents to homeschool kids. With schools delaying the return to in-person instruction, the argument is whether or not this will have a permanent effect on students.
STEAM and Pre-K
Historically, public schools provide education starting at the kindergarten level, which is normally 5- and 6-year-olds. However, more states are expanding early learning efforts to Pre-K programs to allow 3-year-old students to receive free education and resources. But the resources need to be flexible for the virtual environment and include a mix of science, technology, education, arts, and math (STEAM) and traditional sensory activities.
While there are at-home programs to help educate students during the pandemic, most focus on tactile and sensory experiences and reading. Few programs, if any, have a focus on STEAM components.
In fact, many students report their first exposure to STEAM-related activities is in college, or high school at best. As the gap widens between STEAM jobs and qualified candidates, educational systems need to adapt and start providing instruction at the earliest possible opportunity, which include merging STEAM into Pre-K programs in the in-person, hybrid, and virtual environments.