TAMPA, Fla. — Enrollment in Florida's Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten Program is down statewide in 2020, according to the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas. This comes as many families are choosing to keep children home as COVID-19 spreads across the state.
Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten, or VPK, is a free educational program that helps your child be ready for kindergarten. It helps prepares 4-year-olds for kindergarten and beyond.
To be eligible, children must live in Florida and be four on or before September 1 of the school year they enroll. Parents can choose from private child care centers or public schools and school-year or summer programs.
For the first week of August 2019, Florida had 5,967 approved VPK applications and 1,985 enrolled VPK children.
As of Wednesday, August 5, the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas confirmed that there have been 4,688 approved VPK applications. However, there are currently 1,087 enrolled at this time.
In comparison with this year, last year there were more than 1,000 additional applications and 900 more children enrolled in Florida's VPK program, according to Rosa Rivera with the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas.
In the meantime, low enrollment is an issue with many childcare providers. Many are concerned about the impact on children and their readiness for kindergarten.
"I do worry academically about those kiddos," said Georgeann Hull, who serves as a VPK provider through her childcare facility, KidsPark Oldsmar. "VPK was put into place for a reason."
As of the beginning of August 2020, the Florida Department of Education has not authorized a virtual option for VPK programs.
"For young children, it's not ideal to have a virtual program. They need the hands-on experience, they need the interactions," said Lindsay Carson, who serves as the chief executive officer for the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas.
But before skipping out on VPK completely for this year, Carson said to talk to your VPK provider, because they do have options.
Most VPK programs typically start at the beginning of the school year and historically follow the public school calendar. However, that is not required.
"If they follow the public school calendar, typically, that would be three hours a day," Carson said. "However, providers do have the option of adjusting their calendar and say doing a four-hour day. They could start in January and do a six-hour day."
Carson said the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas is happy to work with childcare providers so that they have the flexibility to meet the needs of the families they serve.
"You know, nothing's going to be normal this year," she said. "However, we do have some flexibility so that our providers can continue to operate. Families have choices, and we can all work together to protect children."