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COVID-19 pandemic causing problems with preschool programs

Preschool enrollment is "critically low." Educators fear long-term consequences.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich — Since March, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges for educators and students across the state. Now, it is causing problems with some of West Michigan's youngest and most vulnerable school kids -- preschoolers.

Enrollment numbers have dropped in recent months and are now being described as "critically low." Dr. Nkechy Ezeh, founder and CEO of Grand Rapids' Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative (ELNC) is among the many experts concerned about long-term consequences.

"The pandemic has really struck a nerve and is literally sending this domino effect to everything that we do. It is affecting enrollment. It is affecting the way teachers do their work. It is affecting the parents themselves," said Ezeh. "It is also affecting administrators, how do we plan, you know, and make sure that we're doing what we set out to do for our children, but we are also, financially, going to be able to make it work."

Ezeh says low enrollment numbers throughout the state of Michigan has forced many Intermediate School Districts and schools to make cuts, including laying off teachers. 

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"Because the children are just not coming. Parents are not bringing them, even when some districts or some programs try to do distance learning," she said.

Ezeh says many of her parents are already overwhelmed, financially and emotionally, because of the pandemic. Unfortunately, for many, it is easier to put preschool on hold.

"Also, enrollment at the beginning of the school year just never got off right on the right foot," she says. "Recruitment over the summer was affected because we were not able to be in the community. We were not able to go meet with parents. We still had the partial lockdown. So, all the programs throughout the state of Michigan really started low with recruitment because recruitment was unusual."

Ashley Karsten, director of early childhood at Kent Intermediate School District says many parents are caught in impossible situations, having to decide between virtual preschool programs when they don't have time or ability to assist the kids' or in-person programs that could close at any moment.

"Parents are also concerned kids, at that age, won't properly socially distance,"  said Karsten. "I feel for the families, I know it's a really hard decision, and I know that they're doing the best they can. But, we really want families to reach out, even if it's just to talk to us. We have teachers available to talk. We have intake specialists to answer their questions. Just reach out and ask questions and give it a try."

Dr. Ezeh agrees. ELNC has spent the past decade helping to lead the effort to create more preschool opportunities in West Michigan, especially in the city's urban core. She's afraid COVID-19 is rapidly undoing much of hard work, to make sure children start school ready to succeed.

"So in the past 11 years, we have done a great job and gotten the community and parents to understand the importance of early childhood education," says Ezeh. "Children were coming. Parents are learning. Everybody understood the importance of early childhood education. We have to start the children ready, otherwise they're going to be forever behind. We even got a millage passed as a result of all the work that the community has been doing, and then the pandemic happened. This is so emotional for me because, you know, I've spent my life, literally fighting for these vulnerable children, and I am just mad that when it looks like we get in it all together COVID is taking it away from us."

In 2009, Grand Rapids Public Schools cited an alarming report that suggested 83% its students were entering kindergarten not ready. Ezeh says students have made enormous progress since then, improving readiness by about 33%. 

"Last year, all of our classrooms were full. We had all 400 slots for Great Start Readiness Program was filled. We had 114 slots for 3-year-olds filled. For our infants and toddlers I believe 80 of the children, out of 88, were in the classroom," she said. "Being in the early childhood education field, I know the importance of early childhood education. It sets the child up for to be ready for kindergarten, and for life. Studies have shown that, without it, some of the kids come into kindergarten, almost a full year behind or even as much as 18 months behind. You can't start behind like that. You will always be playing catch-up."

"Absolutely. I mean we know that to be true with kids who aren't reading (at level) by third grade. There is a long-term impact if they're not ready to learn and they're not ready to go to kindergarten," says Karsten. "You know any delay is going to be detrimental to their long term academic success. We also do a lot of work with families in preschool and getting them ready for the school system and how to navigate everything and so we're missing out on that opportunity this year also."

Karsten, too, is very concerned about the current situation. She says there are typically a little more than 2,000 preschoolers enrolled in Kent County.  Currently, they are down about 700 students county-wide. 

"It is just a web, where one little thing affects everything else," says Ezeh. "It's not just the, the challenge for not having the children in the classroom. It's the challenge of children being left behind. It is the challenge of what the parents are going through. And, for us in early childhood administration the challenge of figuring out how to navigate all of this."

Right now Ezeh, and other advocates are calling on educators and lawmakers to immediately address this issue. Meanwhile she encourages parents to contact them or the Kent ISD to get their kids connected with preschool opportunities.

"Parents, I want you to know that early childhood education is important, preschool matters. We need to find a way to reconnect your child to preschool in your neighborhood," she said. "What's at stake is black and brown children are going to go to school not ready for kindergarten. They're going to be behind. And, that's why you have programs like ELNC or Head Start, because the majority of our children are behind already. I'm afraid that this pandemic, and the children not being able to connect with preschool is going to keep them behind. So, what's at risk is their future. Their future is at risk. Everything is at risk."

More information on ELNC's preschool programs can be found here. Kent ISD has preschool intake for the entire county. Those interested are encouraged to phone (616) 447-2409 or fill out an online application here.

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