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Report: Preschool enrollment rates fell during pandemic in most Mountain West states

A preschool teacher is sitting cross-legged on the floor, reading Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to a group of children. She is wearing a mask.
Kaleb Roedel
Mountain West News Bureau
A teacher at MunchkinLand Preschool in Reno, Nev., reads to a group of children in November 2021.

A new report shows preschool enrollment rates dropped significantly during the pandemic. In the Mountain West, the rates of decline varied widely.

From 2019 to 2021, the percentage of 3-to-6-year-olds enrolled in preschool decreased by more than 9% nationwide, according to the Census Bureau report.

In New Mexico, enrollment rates fell by nearly 18%, one of the biggest drops in the nation and roughly double the national average. The only other Mountain West state with a decline above the national average was Nevada, where enrollment rates shrank more than 10%.

In Colorado and Utah, the rates dipped around 7%. Meanwhile, Idaho and Wyoming didn’t see a significant change.

The largest concentration of declines was along the east and west coasts, with the biggest drop in New Hampshire (19%), said Erik Hernandez, a Census Bureau survey statistician who co-authored the report.

“The decline in preschool enrollment coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, and parents of young children could have been wary of sending their children to school during this time period,” Hernandez said.

He added that many preschools also temporarily shut down or closed permanently during the COVID-19 crisis.

Kevin McElrath, a survey statistician and co-author, said it’s too soon to tell if the pandemic’s impact on early childhood enrollment is here to stay.

“Future research is going to show whether this was the start of a long-term trend or something where school enrollment is going to bounce back as the pandemic wanes,” he said.

In 2021, 4.1 million children were enrolled in preschool across the country – the lowest number since the American Community Survey started collecting that data in 2005.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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