CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Mecklenburg County’s littlest learners are just days away from returning to the classrooms, but if the county were to consider remote instruction for Pre-K, a new report revealed it would cost millions of dollars.
At the Mecklenburg County Commission meeting Tuesday night, the CEO of Smart Start gave a presentation outlining the costs associated with outfitting Pre-K classrooms with the things they would need to instruct remotely.
Estimates predicted the cost would be just under $100,000 per classroom. The step price tag would include supplies, materials, curriculum, plus salaries for additional educators.
It would not include another, likely critical, expense: providing laptops and wifi access to the families whose children attend the program. That cost would likely be upwards of $1,000 per family, said Jake House, CEO of Smart Start.
“It’s the wrong conversation,” House said, stressing the importance of in-person instruction for children in that age group. “It’s not fiscally appropriate, it’s not operationally prudent.”
Many of the commissioners agreed, questioning whether the price would be worth it.
“I worry about my babies,” said commissioner Vilma Leake. “I’m very much concerned about any program that’s coming into the system at the expense of the county.”
Commissioner Pat Cotham pointed out, many of the families that utilize the program come from lower-income households and hold essential jobs.
She said those families need child care.
“This is in the best interest of the children as well as the families who are working people and they can’t be home with their children,” Cotham said.
With more families at home during the pandemic, the demand for Pre-K spots slipped this year.
Meck Pre-K usually has a long waiting list. This year, however, there are still about two dozen spots still available.
Statewide, enrollment in NC Pre-K is even lower. The analysis revealed thousands of spaces still available, and overall enrollment at just 44%.
House said in a survey conducted of Mecklenburg County child care centers that house Pre-K, the overwhelming majority of them saw no or little value in offering remote instruction.
County commissioners opted to take no action Tuesday on the remote learning preparations, instead deciding to keep their sights on the return to in-person instruction Monday.
Commissioner Trevor Fuller said the return brings a critical benefit of trained educators working hands-on with young children.
“There’s some real challenges that our children are facing that show up when our children get into our school system that many times it’s too late to do anything about it,” Fuller said. “We do our best, but often, it’s too late.”
House stressed to the commission that he believes the return Monday will be executed safely.
He said the child care centers will have a number of rigorous safeguards in place for the children and the instructors.