The number of kindergartners in public school plunged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Concerned about the virus or wanting to avoid online school, hundreds of thousands of families delayed the start of school for their young children. Most have returned to schooling of some kind, but even three years after the pandemic school closures, kindergarten enrollment has continued to lag.

Some parents like Levy don’t see much value in traditional kindergarten. For others, it’s a matter of keeping children in other child care arrangements that better fit their lifestyles. And for many, kindergarten simply is no longer the assumed first step in a child’s formal education, another sign of the way the pandemic and online learning upended the U.S. school system.

Kindergarten is considered a crucial year for children to learn to follow directions, regulate behavior and get accustomed to learning. Missing that year of school can put kids at a disadvantage, especially those from low-income families and families whose first language is not English, said Deborah Stipek, a former dean of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. Those children are sometimes behind in recognizing letters and counting to 10 even before starting school, she said.

But to some parents, that foundation seems less urgent post-pandemic. For many, kindergarten just doesn’t seem to work for their lives.

Students who disengaged during the pandemic school closures have been making their way back to schools. But kindergarten enrollment remained down 5.2 percent in the 2022-2023 school year compared with the 2019-2020 school year, according to an Associated Press analysis of state-level data. Public school enrollment across all grades fell 2.2 percent.

Kindergarten means a seismic change in some families’ lifestyles. After years of all-day child care, they suddenly must manage afternoon pickups with limited and expensive options for after-school care. Some worry their child isn’t ready for the structure and behavioral expectations of a public school classroom. And many think whatever their child misses at school can be quickly learned in first grade.

Read the full article about fewer students enrolling in Kindergarten by Cheyanne Mumphrey, Sharon Lurye and Zaidee Stavely at The Hechinger Report .