Pima’s Free Pre-K Curriculum Starts Slow Due to Pandemic and Teacher Shortages

Bennito L. Kelty

TucsonSentinel.com

More than 500 children from low-income families in Pima County have enrolled in preschool through a $13 million scholarship program that began last fall. The county hopes to more than double that enrollment by the end of the school year, but the pandemic and teacher shortages have made that difficult, officials said.

The Pima Early Education Program Scholarship Program – or PEEPS – is in its pilot phase through 2023 after the Supervisory Board approved the project for two years in a vote last summer. In September, 360 pre-school children benefited from the free education program. Three months later, that number has grown to more than 200, and there are now 567 preschoolers enrolled with the help of PEEPS.

Of the program’s total two-year budget, $11 million goes directly to scholarships, while about $2 million is spent improving pre-K programs that are not rated as “high quality” by First of all, the Arizona Early Childhood Education Agency. “High quality” means schools received three to five stars in an evaluation by First Things First, but Pima County is also helping children enrolled in two-star programs for this first fiscal year due to the pandemic, have officials said.

There are more than 150 high-quality preschools in Pima County where students receive the PEEPS, and 12 more will open in the Amphitheater, Sunnyside and Tucson Unified school districts. Sunnyside already has two pre-K classrooms with full enrollment, and TUSD has three.

More families are also using child care subsidies from the Arizona Department of Economic Security, the county reported. In September, there were 740 more children in Pima County receiving financial assistance to attend high-quality pre-K than the previous year.

Families are eligible for PEEPS if their annual income is below twice the federal poverty level, a marker set by Health and Human Services. For a family of four, that would be an income of $53,000 or less per year.

However, the pandemic and teacher shortages have prevented PEEPS from reaching more children, as the county has been unable to open more pre-K classrooms or fill enough spaces in those existing.

These are the “biggest challenges,” said Nicole Scott, the program manager, but “the pandemic is the overriding challenge.”

No children, no teachers, no new classrooms

PEEPS is halfway to its first-year goal of providing more than 1,200 children with the kind of early education that leads to higher incomes, better health and chances of graduating from high school later. The program aims to help more than 5,000 children in the near future and is also expected to create more high-quality early education providers.

Considering the program began more than a year into the pandemic, Scott sees a glass half full noting that the program is serving 50% of the number of children officials had planned to help.

“That, in itself, is really something we can be proud of because of all the challenges,” she said. “Really, it comes down to individual parent preference and their own fears and insecurities of having their children in these environments.”

Parents are hesitant to send their 3- to 5-year-olds to school when there is no COVID-19 vaccine for children under five, Scott said, and when, along with the shortage of teachers, the county did not meet its goals with PEEPS. On top of that, working-at-home parents might consider preschool unnecessary, she said, if they feel they can care for their children on their own.

Many teachers are also not ready to return to work, Scott said, because there are always concerns about the safety of a preschool classroom. Still at an age when they’re learning to wash their hands regularly, preschoolers spread germs quickly, Scott said, and “with the pandemic, there’s still this lingering fear of returning to environments with large groups”.

The county is trying to keep teachers from feeling “burnt out and wanting to leave our field,” she said. Preschool classes have been able to stay open by moving to campuses where teachers are available, but the county administration is considering the best way to retain teachers. That includes giving more recognition to teachers who have stayed on the job during the pandemic, even with “all the policies and procedures that have been thrust upon them,” Scott said.

Hiring kindergarten teachers also takes time, she said, because finding people who are passionate about educating preschoolers is essential.

“As an early childhood community, we don’t want to pressure anyone into entering our industry. We want people who want to be there and who are passionate about early childhood education,” she said. “So without teachers in the classrooms, we’re not able to open those classrooms, and we’re not able to fill those high-quality seats.”

PEEPS fell short of expectations as it sits at 50% of its first-year enrollment goal, but the county is still “in a good position,” Scott said.

“A lot of people who are really invested in this program thought that we would use more of it, that we would have more numbers, that we would be at a higher percentage because there is a need,” she said. “Because of the pandemic, that’s why we’ve seen this fluctuation. From my perspective, I think we’re in a good position and I think we’ll continue to see usage increase more and more. It reminds people who are really invested in this program that before PEEPS was here, these kids weren’t in these high quality places.

Giving a child a high-quality preschool education is better than nothing, Scott said. There’s still a lot of good in helping just one child because of the long-term impact of good early education, she said.

“Even though we are only at 50%, we have helped many more children and families enter these high quality environments and impact their lifelong learning journey. “, she said. “Even if it’s just one child and one family, we are making a difference.”

Parents can begin the process of getting help from PEEPS and find a high-quality pre-K program for their child or children by visiting Child Care Resource and Referral Website, clicking on “search for child care” and completing the survey to find a child care provider in their area. Alternatively, parents can call 1-800-308-9000. Both resources are also available in Spanish.

Bennito L. Kelty is the IDEA reporter for TucsonSentinel.com, focusing on stories of inclusion, diversity, equity and access, and a member of the Report for America body.

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