WINCHESTER — In mid-May, about 40% of Winchester Public Schools' preschool slots for the 2021-22 school year had been filled.
"It's not awesome, but it's not horrible," said Angie Cain, the division's early childhood coordinator.
When school starts in August, WPS will have nine preschool classrooms, up from eight. The cost for the division to fund a classroom is covered 60% by the state and 40% from local funds. The total estimated cost of a preschool classroom is $140,000 annually.
The additional preschool classroom will be funded by the J2W Foundation. Based in Winchester, the nonprofit group is "focused on creating equity and leveling the playing field for socially and economically disadvantaged children and youth in [its] geographic service area," according to its website.
One WPS preschool classroom typically serves 18 students.
According to the Virginia Department of Education, WPS had 111 preschool students enrolled last fall. That's 42 students fewer than the 153 enrolled in the fall of the 2019-20 school year, a difference of 27%.
The division's kindergarten enrollment also dipped from the 2019-20 school year to the current school year, from 323 students to 268, a decrease of about 17%, based on VDOE data.
WPS isn't alone in this trend, which was sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic and parents who were reluctant to enroll their young children in school. An independent study by National Public Radio of more than 60 school districts across the U.S. in 2020 found that the average kindergarten enrollment dropped 16%.
Even though preschool and kindergarten are not mandatory in Virginia, local school officials say it's critical for early childhood enrollment numbers to bounce back, because it's a foundational time for students to develop their social-emotional and academic skills. It's also a vital service for students identified with a disability.
Cain noted that for some parents, it may not have been logistically possible to have their young children enrolled this year with hybrid and virtual learning in effect. Hybrid students in WPS began the school year being able to attend in-person classes twice a week. That increased to four days in November.
Frederick County Public Schools didn't experience a major decrease in preschool enrollment, likely because it offered preschool to first-grade students four days per week of in-person learning from the start of the school year, said Angie White, FCPS preschool coordinator. But the division did have a 4% decrease in kindergarten enrollment from the 2019-20 to 2020-21 school year, dipping from 947 to 903.
FCPS will have an additional preschool classroom this fall with a total of four classrooms. Ideally, the division would have a preschool classroom at each of its 12 elementary schools, White said.
White said she isn't concerned about filling spaces for the additional classroom, adding that she already has more than enough parents filling out applications to enroll their children.
Normally, Clarke County Public Schools has three preschool classrooms. Due to the pandemic, it only had two for the current school year. However, the division expects to have three preschool classrooms in the fall, said CCPS Superintendent Chuck Bishop.
Bishop said several parents chose to defer their child's kindergarten enrollment for a year or they chose to do homeschooling this year as a result of the pandemic. Overall, the division had about a 7% decrease in its kindergarten enrollment, from 105 students in 2019-20 to 98 enrolled in the 2020-21 fall term, according to the VDOE.
Bishop said CCPS already has about 103 kindergarten students enrolled for the 2020-21 school year.
All three school divisions are currently enrolling students for kindergarten for the upcoming school year. Preschool applications vary and may have wait lists.