As public school enrolment dropped during an atypical back-to-school season, homeschooling figures surged in the fall, especially in early grades: the number of kindergarten students registered rose by more than 200 per cent.
The province has published its 2020-21 enrolment report, which compiles headcounts taken in the public, independent and homeschool education systems, as of Sept. 30.
The latest annual report indicates 205,662 students are enrolled in K-12 classrooms, 88 per cent of which are in public schools, across Manitoba.
Total school division registrations typically fluctuate within one per cent of an increase every year, but approximately five per cent fewer students are attending public school this year in comparison to 2019.
At the same time, the province has recorded an unprecedented 118 per cent hike in homeschooling.
Based on Thea Toews’ experience, the latter figure is likely even higher, since kindergarten homeschool registration is optional.
The Toews family, who are unofficially homeschooling, had planned to send their five-year-old son to the local elementary school in Winnipeg until the COVID-19 pandemic complicated matters. After mulling options and taking into consideration family health, they decided to keep him home.
"We ultimately want our child to attend our wonderful local public school. During the pandemic, though, if some families have alternative options and exercise them, it makes school that much safer for all the children who do attend," said Toews, who is balancing remote work and homeschool lessons.
She added: "It just seemed like unnecessary germ pool mixing."
Teaching kindergarten has been fairly low-stakes because it’s all about play-based learning and the flexibility to explore subjects at their own pace is a bonus, she said. (The Toews spent an entire month focused on learning with Lego, by building structures and incorporating storytelling.)
Overall, kindergarten enrolment decreased across Manitoba’s school systems by seven per cent in 2020. The most significant drop, however, was recorded across preschools; in total, there was a 41 per cent plunge.
"Parents are scared," said Sheri-Lynn Skwarchuk, a professor of early childhood education at the University of Winnipeg, who also serves on a local pre-school board that has seen enrolment decrease this year.
"My issue is, as an educator, it’s fine to keep your children at home — but what are you doing with your kids? Are they getting stimulation? Is there involvement or are they sitting in front of the TV? We want to make sure these kids have opportunities."
Younger students have suffered more than their older peers when it comes to reading and writing competency during the COVID-19 disruptions because they are not yet fully independent learners.
"Practice is very important and if we don’t practise our skills, there's going to be learning loss associated with children just staying at home with nothing to do," Skwarchuk said.
Without formal schooling of any sort, she said students also miss out on the most basic things: for example, the practice of getting their backpack ready daily, which instills basic routine and organization skills.
Eight months into the 2020-21 school year, kindergarten teacher Monique Paul said she is incredibly proud of her students’ results and how they have happily adapted at École Provencher.
"We are one of the absolute constants this year for them, so it’s pretty amazing. Before the school year started, it was really hard to imagine — and here we are," Paul said, adding many of her students were introduced to school for the first time with social distancing and teachers in masks.
During a pandemic or not, Paul is an advocate for full-day kindergarten to get students up to speed with school routines.
"It easily outweighs any challenges because it does provide a solid start to these students and it definitely does benefit them and prepare them for Grade 1," Paul added.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.