With lunch in hand, students at Tornillo Elementary line up for dismissal. Those students who are attending face-to-face classes are on campus in the morning and then go home with lunch and attend classes online in the afternoon. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Lourdes Delgado’s youngest grandchildren sat out pre-kindergarten and kindergarten last year because she worried she wouldn’t have the attention span to help them navigate virtual learning while also assisting the two oldest in her care — then in fourth and fifth grade — to learn remotely.

Her family is one of many in El Paso who didn’t enroll their youngest learners in public school last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Area districts saw the largest enrollment declines at the pre-K and kindergarten levels — grades that are optional for Texas students.

While some schools are preparing for an increase in these grades, El Paso’s three largest districts anticipate enrollment will be slightly larger than last fall, but still well below pre-pandemic levels due to the annual enrollment decline area schools have seen over the last decade. The rise in coronavirus cases, currently driven by the contagious delta coronavirus variant, may also deter families from sending their kids to school.

After much thought, Delgado has decided to home-school her 5-year-old grandson and 6-year-old granddaughter, who are immunocompromised. And because her now fifth- and sixth-graders aren’t eligible for the vaccine, she’s homeschooling them too because the El Paso Independent School District is not offering virtual instruction.

“I can control what goes on in my home, so I feel like I’m taking a proactive stance,” Delgado said. “I’d rather be challenged with getting the kids adjusted to home school than having one of my kids get COVID-19. If one of my older ones brings the virus home, that makes it very difficult since the little ones are high risk.”

Nationwide, public school pre-K enrollment fell 22% last year, while kindergarten enrollment dropped 9%, according to National Center for Education Statistics data. Texas saw nearly identical declines, with pre-K enrollment down 22% last fall compared to fall 2019 and kindergarten down 6%, a Texas Education Agency analysis found.

The exact number of kids who will show up in classrooms this fall is unknown because families are still registering their students, Ysleta Independent School District spokesperson Daniel Martinez said. YISD’s first day of classes is Monday, though registration remains open throughout the year.

YISD expects enrollment will be slightly above last fall, when it had 950 pre-K and 2,500 kindergarten students. EPISD anticipates it will have 2,200 pre-K and 3,100 kindergarten students — well above last fall’s numbers but still a couple hundred shy of 2019-20 levels.

Given the pandemic’s disruptions on schooling, parents and guardians can elect for their children to restart or repeat the grade they were eligible for last fall. For children in pre-K through third grade, that option will remain in place for future school years after lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1697 during the legislative session that ended in May.

Ivan Brady, 5, worked on an assignment in his pre-K class at Tornillo Elementary last October. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Because districts’ state funding is based on student attendance, El Paso districts are working to assuage parents’ fears about sending their children back to school. A loss of a few hundred kids results in upwards of a $2 million hit on a district’s budget.

The state is no longer funding districts for virtual instruction, and none of El Paso County’s districts plan — as of now — to make this an option for students in lower grade levels who are unable to get vaccinated. The Pfizer vaccine is available for those 12 and older and is in the trial stage for younger children. It likely won’t be ready for use in 5- to 11-year-olds until late fall or early winter.

Another change from last year is that Texas districts cannot mandate face coverings, though the city of El Paso Department of Public Health “strongly” recommends that unvaccinated individuals wear one. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance to recommend that students, teachers and staff wear masks inside schools.

The Socorro Independent School District will provide students with desk shields upon request and is working to find alternatives for students whose parents don’t want them to eat lunch in the cafeteria.

“We’re trying to be as accommodating as possible because we do know that some of our parents are worried, but we want to make sure that they feel comfortable (and) safe, and we want to honor (their wishes) as much as we possibly can,” said Alisa Zapata, Socorro ISD assistant superintendent of elementary education.

“We’re hoping that the benefit (of in-person instruction) will outweigh the risk,” she said. “We believe that face-to-face instruction is just so much more beneficial to our students than having instruction online. There was so much that was missed last year.”

Pre-K and kindergarten classes expose students to more than the alphabet, phonics, shapes, patterns and numbers. They are where children develop communication and relationship skills that set them up for first grade and beyond, Zapata said. Attending kindergarten gives students the confidence to know they can succeed in first grade, she added.

Because more kindergarten students than usual may not have attended pre-K, teachers will spend extra time helping them adjust to the daily routine. They’ll also have to catch kids up on concepts they may have missed or struggled to grasp online.

“We are finding time within the school day to spiral those concepts back in so that we can move forward in teaching the appropriate curriculum,” Zapata said. “Instead of just going back and remediating all the time, we want to make sure that we’re accelerating forward.”

Cover photo: With lunch in hand, students at Tornillo Elementary lined up for dismissal last October. Tornillo was one of the few El Paso County school districts offering face-to-face instruction last fall. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.