California’s $2.7 Billion Plan to Expand Transitional Kindergarten Is Off to an Uneven Start

In Salinas, about 400 students were eligible by age to enter transitional kindergarten, but less than half were enrolled when school began last week. It’s a sharp drop-off from pre-pandemic years, when nearly all children who were qualified for kindergarten showed up, according to Jim Koenig, superintendent of Alisal Union School District.

Meanwhile, the superintendent of the state’s largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, estimates that more than 10,000 school-age children weren’t enrolled for the school year that began Monday. He believes many of them are concentrated in the earliest grades, from transitional kindergarten through first grade.

“We’re very concerned about that loss of enrollment because we’re not seeing a spike of enrollment in other school settings,” Alberto M. Carvahlo said at a recent news conference, referring to private and charter schools.

Carvahlo said school administrators went into neighborhoods to track the missing students, and found that many of their families moved out of state or shifted to homeschooling. In some cases, older students were staying home to care for their younger siblings.

Participation in kindergarten was rising statewide before COVID-19, but dropped by 23% for the 2020-21 school year. The largest decline was among Black and Native American children and children from lower-income families, according to an analysis of enrollment data by the Public Policy Institute of California.

The lingering toll of COVID

In the Salinas Valley, the coronavirus hits the working class hard — and the toll has taken its toll.

The Alisal Union district serves about 7,500 students, mostly children of immigrants and farmworkers in East Salinas, 70% of whom are English learners. Koenig thinks some of these working parents are still worried about COVID. Salinas, about 85 miles southeast of San Francisco, is the most populous city in Monterey County.

“I think they’re just still concerned about enrolling these very young kids in school and possibly exposing them to the virus,” Koenig said.

The rate of COVID infection among farmworkers in the Salinas Valley was four times higher than in the rest of the local population during the later half of 2020, according to a study that suggested crowded housing as a contributing factor.

a banner hangs on a school fence against a blue sky
A banner hangs on the fence outside Jesse G. Sanchez Elementary School in Salinas, encouraging parents to enroll students. The area is home to many migrant workers who were hit hard by COVID, and some educators think low enrollment is due to fears about exposing kids to the virus. (Daisy Nguyen/KQED)

Only 5% of children under 4 in Monterey County have gotten the COVID vaccine, although it’s not clear whether that is driving under-enrollment. Nationwide, children are behind on routine immunizations against illnesses such as measles, mumps and pertussis, which are required to attend public school. In California, the COVID vaccine will not be a requirement for students until at least the 2023-24 school year. Many school districts have relaxed masking rules.

School is not mandatory in California until kids turn 6, but years of research have detailed how pre-kindergarten shapes young brains and advances children’s development.