School divisions across the country have been faced with a decline in kindergarten enrolment this school year.
Ontario’s largest school division, the Toronto District School Board, said its combined enrolment of junior and senior kindergarten for 2020 was 2,791 fewer students than in 2019.
In Edmonton, Alta., both the public and Catholic school divisions have also had fewer kindergarten students.
In September 2019, 8,083 students were signed up for kindergarten in Edmonton’s public schools. That number dropped by more than 1,000 to 6,821 in September 2020.
The Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) said it expects enrolment numbers to climb back up in the fall to “near-normal” levels along with continued growth over the next few years.
Edmonton Catholic Schools had a combined 400 fewer kindergarten children for in-person and online classes.
The school boards said it believes the lower numbers point to the pandemic and parents choosing to keep their children at home.
British Columbia’s Ministry of Education said the pandemic has impacted enrolment in all grades, but there was a decline of just over 1,000 kindergarten students across both public and independent schools this year.
B.C. is one of the few provinces that has mandated kindergarten, but parents are allowed to defer enrolment of their child for one year.
In Alberta and most other provinces, kindergarten isn’t mandatory.
Justin Marshall, press secretary for Alberta’s Minister of Education said about 94 per cent of children enrolled in Grade 1 attended kindergarten the previous year.
“Alberta parents have the autonomy to determine whether or not to enrol their child in kindergarten,” said Marshall. “Alberta’s government supports what is best for children and their families, and we understand the importance of children getting a positive start at a young age.
“British Columbia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick are the only provinces with mandatory Kindergarten in Canada.”
Amy Swinkels, an early learning consultant with Edmonton Catholic Schools, wishes that wasn’t the case.
“Kindergarten truly is a pivotal part of a child’s learning journey. It starts the child off for success,” Swinkels said.
“Without a doubt in my mind, children are best served in program and in classrooms and that is particularly the case for kindergarten and pre-kindergarten children.”
Swinkels said while most parents can no doubt support their young children at home, she said having a child in the classroom helps them to develop their social and emotional learning — a critical part of a young child’s ability to develop awareness of their surroundings and self-control.
Swinkels also said through play, teachers are able to guide young children and help them foster independence. She used the example of a rushed parent at home zipping their child’s coat.
“Educators are able to take that step back and really coach children through those steps.”
Swinkels said other key lessons in kindergarten include literacy and numeracy development, problem-solving and interpersonal skills.
“Those are really vital for everything they do, both in school, work and in life.”
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Kelly Pelletier’s five-year-old daughter, Makenna, started kindergarten online in the fall, but her mother said something was missing.
“It just wasn’t enough for what she needed,” said Pelletier. “She needs kind of a lot of stimulation, she needs a lot of play. She needs a lot of socialization.”
In November, once Pelletier felt confident the school was safe, her daughter started to attend in-person classes. It made a huge difference.
“She is getting a lot better with her letters and her writing is wonderful. She’s just coming along really nicely,” Pelletier said.
“The social environment I think is just so huge. There’s so much interaction and they just have so much fun.”
Pelletier was also also excited to see a change in Makenna’s demeanour and her excitement for school.
“She tells me about her day and she gets excited and tells me about the crafts,” Pelletier said. “She met a lot of new friends.”
Swinkels said kindergarten teachers are trained to not only teach through play, but take their pedagogical knowledge and bring to life what is developmentally appropriate for children.
“School is normal for children. School online is not normal for children at this point in life. We really want to encourage families to definitely enrol their children in kindergarten” said Swinkels.
“It is what is ultimately best for children.”