Kindergarten enrollment has plunged across the Twin Cities metro, as families have sought alternatives to a first year of school spent at least partly in front of a computer screen during the pandemic.

Parents frustrated by online and hybrid lessons have opted for home schooling, private schools offering in-person instruction or even delaying the start of their children's grade-school education altogether. Meanwhile, school leaders who are just beginning to share their official enrollment counts with school board members and the state Department of Education are scrambling to sort out where the missing kindergartners are, whether it's likely they'll be back next year — and how much of a financial hit districts are likely to suffer in the meantime since funding is linked to student counts.

"It's obviously a challenge that I think all districts are facing right now," said Ron Meyer, executive director of finance and operations for Osseo Area Schools, where kindergarten enrollment is down by more than 13% from district projections.

Enrollment is down overall this year, but the decline is particularly steep among kindergartners. In Bloomington and Inver Grove Heights, this year's kindergarten enrollment is down 18% from the districts' projections. Minneapolis and St. Louis Park kindergarten classes are each 16% below projected enrollment. In Brooklyn Center and Wayzata, kindergarten enrollment is down by at least 20%. Even in Prior Lake-Savage, the metro's fastest-growing district in recent years, there's been a nearly 7% drop, according to a recent survey by the Association of Metropolitan School Districts.

Teresa Wagner's daughter is part of the wave of kindergartners pushed out of school by the pandemic. Wagner had planned to send her daughter to kindergarten in the South Washington County school district, just like she'd done when her two older children started school.

But then came the pandemic, and a spring of distance-learning preschool — a frustrating experience that no one in the family wanted to extend into kindergarten. So Wagner enrolled her daughter in a private school offering in-person instruction five days a week this fall.

"The kindergarten decision was different this year," she said.

A search for normal

Kindergarten is not required in Minnesota, and compulsory school attendance begins at age 7. So for families trying to avoid putting their children in a classroom this fall — or trying to get them in one every day — there are more options for 5- and 6-year-olds than for older students. The state does not release enrollment numbers until winter, so it's not yet clear how many students are being home-schooled, or how many have shifted from public to private schools.

But early reports from schools indicate that many families that want in-person instruction every day — and have the means to pay tuition — have moved to private schools, which are not subject to Gov. Tim Walz's reopening directives and have largely fully reopened. At Holy Name of Jesus Catholic School in Wayzata, enrollment has soared at a rate most Catholic schools haven't seen in decades. Last year's kindergarten class had 32 students. This year, it's up to 60, with more than 25 other kindergartners on a waiting list. The school's overall enrollment is up 20%.

"Celebrating that first year of school in this COVID environment is difficult, at best," said the school's principal, Martha Laurent. "I think [parents] were looking for the best opportunity of it seeming the most normal, or traditional for the kindergarten year."

At the Nativity of Mary School in Bloomington, overall enrollment is also up by 20%, and there are waiting lists for the first time in years.

"The primary factor that drove them to us, was they were looking for in-person" classes, said Ryan Pajak, the school's principal.

Many schools affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod have also seen an uptick in enrollment, particularly in kindergarten and other early grades. In the church's Minnesota South District, home to about three dozen elementary schools, kindergarten enrollment is up by 46%, said Sean Martens, an assistant to the district's president and school liaison.

"It's not uniform, but definitely you could look on the map and wherever there is hybrid or distance learning in public schools, it seems like the Lutheran schools have grown," he said.

More uncertainty ahead

Meanwhile, some families have joined together to form learning "pods," hiring tutors or taking turns with other parents to oversee learning at home. Some have turned to home-visit services to support kindergarten-age students who are sitting out a year when they'd normally be learning how to listen to a teacher's instructions, master letters and numbers, and share with classmates.

Carolyn Smallwood, CEO of Way to Grow, a Minneapolis-based early learning nonprofit that aims to address achievement gaps and support families in Minneapolis, Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center, said some families have struggled to find spots in scaled-down kindergarten programs. Others, especially those with parents juggling multiple jobs to keep the family afloat, realized they couldn't balance work with supervising their kindergartner's distance learning and decided to keep them out of school for the year.

Smallwood said vastly different kindergarten experiences this year are likely to exacerbate the state's already significant achievement gaps, particularly because the first years of school set the course for future studies.

"Now we have a situation where they're not in kindergarten, not receiving the quality of services that is needed at that particular time, and our kids are probably going to be further behind," she said.

Some school leaders think kindergarten numbers and overall enrollment could still shift during the school year. If local spread of the virus drops and schools reopen, they expect some students will return. But the reverse could happen, too.

And if the pandemic remains widespread well into 2021, next year's enrollment also could be unpredictable. Already, leaders of some private schools said they're hearing from parents seeking spots for the next school year — for first grade — just in case.

In Woodbury, Wagner is already wrestling with the possibilities for the 2021-22 school year. She said her daughter will be back in public school for first grade, so long as school routines are back to normal. If not? Wagner is still unsure, because the prospect of first grade in hybrid mode seems like a challenge, too.

"I think if everything goes back to normal, we absolutely would send her back to the district," Wagner said. "I don't know about next year."

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790