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Researchers beginning to see impacts of COVID-19 on early childhood education

Among families with incomes below $25,000, preschool participation at age four dropped from 64% to 43%.

STATESVILLE, N.C. — Researchers are beginning to see the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on early childhood education.

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), 71% of 4-year-old children attended a preschool program prior to the pandemic. Preschool participation fell to 54% in the fall of 2020.

The top three reasons for this drop in enrollment, according to NIEER, are lack of in-person options, families concerned about the safety of in-person schooling, and cuts in preschool funding.

Among families with incomes below $25,000, preschool participation at age four dropped from 64% to 43%, compared to a drop from 72% to 55% for higher-income families.

"In North Carolina during the pandemic, we've seen how the inequities that exist in the system have been further exacerbated,” said Muffy Grant, executive director for the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation.

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WCNC Charlotte reached out to several local school districts in the Charlotte area for enrollment numbers. Iredell-Statesville Schools saw a slight drop in kindergarten enrollment from 1,396 students in the 2019-20 school year to 1,335 students in the 2020-21 school year. 

Union County Public Schools’ kindergarten enrollment declined from 2,606 in the 2019-20 school year to 2,165 in the 2020-21 school year.

"I do think the kindergarten classes will be fuller this year because many parents have made the decision to hold their children back,” Grant said.

To help this generation of students as they move forward, Grant said she believes investing in teachers, as well as support staff and other services, will be key in helping students cope with the loss and range of emotions the pandemic spurred.

"We should really be focusing on the social-emotional effects of this past year of isolation, and in particular, for children who have the most barriers to access,” Grant said.

Alycia Moore-Smith is a mother of four who decided to use her background working in early childhood education to teach her children at home during the pandemic.

“I really just wanted to focus on teaching my kids the way that I wanted to teach them, and it kind of just grew into this big, amazing thing,” Moore-Smith said.

She documents their learning journey on their YouTube channel “The House of Hicks.” It allows other families to join their “Circle Time” and connect with their daily lessons.

“We’ve gotten so much feedback just about kids being able to learn just because of the YouTube video and doing Circle Time because we’re covering, like Audrey said, the weather, the days of the week, the months of the year,” Moore-Smith said. “We’re doing numbers. We’re counting and sight words, preparing these kids.”

Moore-Smith’s daughter Chloe was supposed to start kindergarten last fall, but she decided to teach her at home.

“It was devastating to know that she wasn’t going to get that opportunity because I didn’t want to, you know, go through the battle of virtual, in-person, in-person, virtual,” said Moore-Smith.

Chloe can be seen in YouTube videos counting, learning colors, singing, and more. Moore-Smith said Chloe will be starting first grade at a STEM academy in the fall.

“I’m all about giving children the space to develop their own type of learning styles and not focusing so much on trying to hinder their abilities,” added Moore-Smith.

The last year and a half of teaching children at home have only solidified Moore-Smith’s passion for early childhood education. She is currently working to expand The House of Hicks Learning Academy.

Contact Kendall Morris at kmorris2@wcnc.com and follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.