Fewer kindergarten students means money problems for schools and learning concerns for children.

Kindergarten enrollment in American schools has plummeted during the pandemic, potentially setting back educational and social development for children at a critical age and impacting public school budgets for years to come.

Most states don’t require kindergarten attendance. As a result, the drop in enrollment at that age has been steeper than at other levels — down 14 percent in Arizona, for example, compared to 5 percent across all grades. Nicole Swartz, an Arizona parent who did not enroll her son this fall, told AZfamily.com, “I just really disagreed with just the mental well-being of what would happen with a 6-year-old sitting at a laptop all day.”

Parents made similar decisions across the country. Pre-K and kindergarten enrollment fell 18 percent in Massachusetts, compared to declines of almost 4 percent for other grades. In Ohio, kindergarten enrollment declined in nearly every local school district.

The youngest students, many experts agree, are worst suited for remote learning. They’re squirmy. They can’t figure out how to work computers without help. And much of their learning is social, emotional and motor skill-based.

But younger students might also be best positioned to return to schools safely, at least for now. Growing evidence suggests that they are less likely to transmit the coronavirus to adults or to suffer severe symptoms.

Some parents have turned to parochial and private schools, which could have a significant impact on public schools in states that use enrollment to allocate funding. That has already happened in South Dakota’s largest district, Sioux Falls, where 300 fewer students may mean a loss of $2.5 million in state financial aid.

In Georgia, where kindergarten enrollment dropped 11 percent this fall, public schools could lose $100 million in funding.

“If you lose five students in a classroom, you can’t turn down the heat by five students,” Stephen Owens, a senior policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, told WABE. “You can’t fire one-twentieth of a teacher.”

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