2021 | Schools

With eye toward in-person fall, MCPS hopes for rebound in pre-K, kindergarten enrollment

Kindergartners can do in-person summer school in July

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After a dip in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten enrollment while schools were closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Montgomery County Public Schools is hoping for a rebound in the fall.

During this academic year, now-retired MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith routinely reported a decline in the district’s enrollment, mainly in the lowest grades. When the district’s official enrollment was recorded in September, it had dropped nearly 3% (about 4,700 students) to 160,564 students.

At the time, Smith said he expected the district’s enrollment to rebound when normal in-person classes resume.

Now, as MCPS nears the end of the school year and has committed to a full-time, in-person schedule in the fall, MCPS is seeing enrollment increase in its earliest grades.

“We all know people are wanting to have a very clear picture of what the fall will look like, and so now that it’s been made clear we’re going to be in schools every day, we’re seeing lots more families come in now to register,” said Sarah Sirgo, MCPS’ director of learning, achievement and administration. “So I think we’re starting to see the beginnings of a little bit of a surge, as we would expect.”

MCPS is monitoring the enrollment of 130 elementary schools, and 80 of them have 50% or more of their projected new students enrolled, Sirgo said. The rest range from about 20% to 49%.

With no in-person registration events, Sirgo said of hitting the 50% threshold by the beginning June, “We feel like we’re in a good spot.”

Similar data for last year were not available on Wednesday.

In 2018 and 2019, MCPS had about 4,600 students in pre-K and about 11,300 in kindergarten. When the official enrollment was taken in 2020, there were 3,596 pre-kindergartners and 10,348 kindergartners. The decrease in the two grades was equal to about half of the MCPS’ total enrollment decrease in 2020.

MCPS enrollment projections show enrollment growing to 170,761 students by the 2026-27 academic year, even accounting for the recent decrease, district leaders have said.

In the fall, the district expects children to be back to a mostly normal school environment, able to learn and play together.

But there will likely still be precautions in place — like spacing guidelines, or face-covering guidelines, for example — because children younger than 12 are not yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, Sirgo said.

“I don’t think anyone thinks that we’re flipping a switch per se, but from an operational perspective, our design intention for the fall is to open with a full schedule under the umbrella of having just come out of … a worldwide pandemic,” Sirgo said. “But I think in terms of what our messaging has been to our schools, it’s that we are prepared to welcome back every student who wants to come back and have as close to a typical experience as the health and safety measures allow.”

To bolster enrollment, MCPS staff members are conducting a series of outreach events, going to community hubs or door-knocking in “hard-to-reach” areas to provide information, answer questions and help register. During the events, MCPS also focuses on summer school and COVID-19 recovery.

On Wednesday, MCPS went to South Lake Elementary School and Westfield Wheaton mall for an outreach event.

There will also be in-person back-to-school events in August.

Since schools began reopening in March after more than a year of closures, Director of Pre-K-12 Curriculum Brenda Lewis said the district has received overwhelmingly positive feedback about in-person learning for the youngest learners.

She had anticipated a few weeks of a transition period, during which students would get reacclimated with classes. But, she said, they adjusted quickly.

“If it wasn’t for the masks and (distancing measures) and so forth, I would not be able to tell that our students have been out of in-person learning for a year,” Lewis said. “You see teachers doing the work they would normally be doing … working magic with students in small groups and individually, students socializing out at recess. You’re seeing really happy, engaged students, families and teachers.”

But for students who may have a more difficult time adjusting, MCPS is prepared to help ease them back into their new routine in the fall, she added.

Social and emotional well-being will be a focus, with lessons embedded in the curriculum.

“Students have been experiencing trauma in a lot of ways this year … and all of our little ones weren’t in school to process that,” Lewis said, “so we have been very intentional about building and implementing those social-emotional lessons. That’s been a real foundation of our work.”

Lewis said that kindergartners can also get back into buildings sooner, by registering for in-person summer school classes that will last four weeks and start July 6. In past years, kindergarten students could not participate in the programs. Registration for summer courses closes Friday evening.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com