Recruit and Retain: The Future of Education

The Missing Students of Covid-19: Five-Year-Olds

We hear a lot about the missing students of Covid19. The statistics, taken too broadly, fail to capture who is missing, and what the impact will be. We can’t know all the impacts, but we do have data about who is missing, and we can make some predictions based on that.

The students in question are, to a disproportionate degree, the youngest ones. It has been estimated that 30% of the missing K-12 students are kindergartners. It’s a concern, but not as great a concern as it would be if the students were older.

The following is a look at what school systems – and individual teachers – need to be prepared for.

Large Kindergarten Classes… Eventually

There will be some larger than usual kindergarten classes, and schools will need to adjust their staffing to accommodate it.

Some parents chose to “redshirt” their kindergartners even pre-pandemic, believing that their children would better meet modern-age school expectations if they were a little older. There are many parents who don’t necessarily feel that waiting a year on kindergarten is a bad thing, even if, in normal times, it didn’t feel necessary or practical. In 2020 – 2021, many parents felt like it was the most practical option.

When there are a lot of red-shirted six-year-olds entering school alongside their five-year-old peers, numbers will go up.

Some districts are planning for big kindergarten classes in the 2021-2022 school year, though they are not sure what the numbers will be. With the school year looming, and young children still not vaccine-eligible, some parents will likely hold their five-year-olds – the would-be class of 2021-2022 -- back until 2022-2023.

First Graders Who Never Went to Kindergarten

More children will enter first grade never having gone to kindergarten. Kindergarten, while ubiquitous, is not mandatory, at least in most states. Chances are, some parents will enroll their first-year elementary schoolers in first grade, not kindergarten. First grade teachers may need to concentrate more on the basics of being a student than they have in the past.

Inequities at the Lowest Levels

Pre-K classes saw an even larger enrollment decline than kindergarten classes. This is a concern as children learn so much before kindergarten, and early childhood experiences play a role in priming them for school success. Public Pre-K, unlike kindergarten, isn’t something one can choose to do a year late. This translates to an increased need for support in kindergarten classrooms.

Disparities in School Experience at the First Grade Level

Many children don’t go to pre-kindergarten, even in normal times. Children already enter school with very different experiences and skill sets. Now more of the discrepancies seen at first entrance will be pushed up to the first grade level.

Children Who Weren’t Really Missing

Not all of the so-called missing children are really missing. Some are in academic settings. They are getting instruction. A portion of the children who show up in “missing child” statistics have been in school. Some have been enrolled at the expected grade level. It remains to be seen how many will return to their neighborhood schools. School systems will want to entice them.

Some kindergarten-age children have been enrolled in academic preschools. Local preschool programs know they have a different population than usual, and they’ve done some adjusting. Some of these preschool children are getting a solid education.

Some children have parents who were at home with them – and putting a lot of attention into homeschooling.

One study by the Brookings Institute and the Virginia Department of Education found that while “missing” Pre-K students tended to be minority and disadvantaged, those at the kindergarten level were disproportionately white ( The study did not find a correlation between kindergarten non-attendance and economic disadvantage.

There is concern that children who were truly missing from education were disproportionately low-income or minority. There are very real equity concerns. But we can’t make broad generalizations here either. There has been an uptick in interest in homeschooling among black families.

Continued Uncertainty… and Hope

There’s a story with many unwritten pages. How will school systems respond to the evolving situation?

There are concerns. Schools will be forced to make decisions based on limited data. Some of those decisions will be global, like determining how many classes will be needed at each grade level. A more than usual number of teachers may need to make last-minute changes.

Some of those decisions will concern interventions for individual students. Some children will be a year late having their recommended screenings. There will be a need for tiered interventions.

On the flip side, some children will have learned a lot more than those “missing children” statistics indicate.

There are also high hopes. There were already disparities in early education. Tumultuous events have drawn attention to them. Yes, there are more disparities, but there is also money coming in to help districts compensate. Some may do more than compensate.