School enrollment has taken a big hit during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the heaviest toll at the earliest grade level. Consider these figures: Linapuni Elementary and Palolo Elementary on Oahu saw their kindergarten classes shrink by about half from the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2020.

This year, kindergarten enrollment started to climb back up at Linapuni, but it dropped further at Palolo, which is down nearly 56% from pre-pandemic levels to 19 kids, based on the latest Hawaii Department of Education enrollment report.

While showing some signs of improvement, Hawaii’s kindergarten enrollment free fall since the pandemic has been one of the steepest in the country, with the most pronounced declines in low-income areas hovering below or just above the poverty line, according to a recent analysis by the New York Times in conjunction with Stanford Graduate School of Education.

Educators and advocates say that poses a big problem because of the importance of early education.

“From a developmental standpoint, kids learn exponentially during this time period. Not having that time is so critical. These lost years could have a critical impact as kids get back into school,” said Ryan Kusumoto, the president and CEO of the nonprofit social services group Parents and Children Together.

Palolo Elementary School sign.
Palolo Elementary was one of the hardest hit by Hawaii’s kindergarten enrollment decline. This year it only has 19 kids enrolled, compared with 43 two years ago. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Overall, statewide kindergarten enrollment in Hawaii declined 15% from 13,074 in the fall of 2019 to 11,103 in 2020, when schools were largely dependent on distance learning. In comparison, the drop in enrollment across all K-12 grades between those same years was 2.6%.

This year, the DOE is counting 11,456 new kindergarteners, slightly more than the year before but still down 12% from 2019. Enrollment figures for that grade level were 13,485 in 2018-19 and 13,427 in 2017-18.

The dip was felt strongly among urban Honolulu neighborhoods such as Kalihi, which encompasses Linapuni Elementary, a pre-K-12 school where the majority of kids qualify for free or reduced cost lunch and where two-thirds of students are not proficient in English.

Even before the pandemic, school attendance was a challenge, with many parents having to work overnight hours and many kids staying up late until their parents returned home, according to the recently retired principal, Cindy Sunahara.

“Historically, they have a hard time bringing their kids to school, and I think it’s easier to keep them at home,” Sunahara said of Linapuni families, whose student body is mostly Pacific Islander and two-thirds Micronesian. “It’s a hard-to-reach community, so we typically have to do a lot of outreach.”

There are some early signs that kindergarten enrollment may be on the rise, according to the DOE enrollment report for the new school year, as all 257 campuses have resumed full in-person instruction.

Linapuni, which dropped from 65 kindergarteners in 2019 to 32 in 2020, has 51 kids in that grade level this year. It’s not clear why Palolo’s numbers are still tracking downward and school principal Gary Harada could not be reached for comment.

Across all grade levels, the DOE experienced a slightly smaller dip in overall enrollment than the year before, from 162,491 students to 159,503, or a 1.8% decrease.

Keonepoko Elementary in Pahoa on Hawaii island went from a kindergarten class size of 86 to 46 between 2019 and 2020, and is now back up to 68, while Pomaikai Elementary in Kahului, Maui went from 92 to 60 and is back up to 72 kids now.

‘Shocked’ by Decline

Sunahara, who retired in July 2020 after 13 years as Linapuni’s principal, says she was “shocked” by how much kindergarten enrollment plummeted.

She attributes it to a number of factors: parents’ concerns around the safety of sending their kids back into the classroom to the hardship of getting the right information or communication to families.

Kusumoto, the head of PACT, which has its headquarters at Kuhio Park Terrace in Kalihi, said concerns for families during the pandemic have ranged from the cost of food, rent and utilities to access to technology to get kids online for school.

And when it comes to early learning programs, many of which operate through federal Head Start dollars, interest has waned.

"Every year we would have a significant waitlist for early learning programs” at neighborhood schools, but this year there are still open slots, he said, adding that families "might be holding off on preschool altogether, choosing to keep their kids at home, and maybe they'll just enroll in kindergarten directly" without the benefit of a pre-kindergarten education.

Kindergarten in Hawaii is mandatory. When the downturn first became apparent in 2020, DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said officials had been "doing a push to remind families" of this fact to encourage enrollment.

It's not clear which alternatives families who are forgoing enrollment are turning to, although homeschool is a strong possibility: the number of households who turned to homeschool jumped nearly 4 percentage points in Hawaii between April 2020 and September 2020, based on Census Bureau data.

The number of kindergarten students is slowly crawling back at Pomaikai Elementary, an arts-integrated school about 10 minutes from the Maui airport, but it's still far short of the usual 100 in previous years.

“Last year is when we saw a significant drop,” the school's principal, Timothy Shim, said. “Due to the pandemic, there’s definitely people who have kept their kids out.”

While he largely blamed the pandemic, Shim said other factors included the number of families with young children who are aging out and the low affordability of the area.

“Real estate is ridiculous,” he said. “It’s hard for young families to move into our area because the pricing is so high.”

Also, Pomaikai has historically enrolled many students on a geographic exemption due to its strong arts program, but the pandemic put a halt to that transfer program.

Shim said he’s saddened that fewer kids are being reached.

“Kindergarten definitely plays a very important role in learning the basics, even standing in a line, sharing. There’s definitely foundational skills that are very important,” he said.

This past summer, the DOE, using federal pandemic aid, offered an expanded free three-week kindergarten transition program known as “Summer Start” to help ease the littlest learners into the classroom by the new school year.

According to a summer school report, the DOE reached 1,066 kids across 64 schools through the initiative — up from 13 schools when this was just a pilot back in 2019.

The kindergarten enrollment drop could spell financial trouble for the hardest hit schools since school funding is tied to the number of students who attend that school. For a small school like Linapuni, that could be disastrous.

“That means, their budget took a big hit,” Sunahara said, who recalls having to cut six teacher positions before the 2020-21 school year. “I know they had to lose several hundred thousand dollars and that’s a lot of money. The majority of funding for small schools goes to personnel.”

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