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Pima's free pre-K program off to slow start due to pandemic, teacher shortages

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

The Pima Early Education Program Scholarships — or PEEPS — program is in its pilot phase until 2023 after the Board of Supervisors approved the project for two years with a vote last summer. By September, there were 360 preschoolers taking advantage of the free education program. Three months later, that increased by more than 200, and there are now 567 preschoolers enrolled with the help of PEEPS.

Out of the program’s total two-year budget, $11 million is going directly to scholarships while about $2 million is being spent on improving pre-K programs that are not rated as "high-quality" by First Things First, Arizona's early childhood education agency. “High-quality” means schools received three to five stars on an assessment by First Things First, but Pima County is also assisting children enrolled in two-star programs for this first fiscal year because of the pandemic, officials said

There are more than 150 high-quality preschool locations in Pima County where students are receiving PEEPS, and an additional 12 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. As of September, there were 740 more children in Pima County who were receiving financial assistance to attend high-quality pre-K than there were the year before.

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

The pandemic and a shortage of teachers have stymied PEEPS from reaching more kids, however, as the county has been unable to open more pre-K classrooms or fill enough seats in existing ones.

Those have been the “highest challenges,” Nicole Scott, the program’s manager, said, but “the pandemic is the overarching challenge.”

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No kids, no teachers, no new classrooms

PEEPS is about halfway to its year-one goal of providing more than 1,200 kids with the kind of early education that leads to better incomes, health and chances of finishing high school down the road. The program seeks to help more than 5,000 kids in the near future and is also expected to create more high-quality early education providers.

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

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

Parents are hesitating to send their 3-to-5-year-olds to school while there is no COVID-19 vaccine for children under five, Scott said, and that along with the teacher shortage has kept the county from meeting their goals with PEEPS. On top of that, parents who work at home might consider preschool unnecessary, she said, if they feel like they can take care of their kids themselves.

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

The county is trying to prevent teachers from feeling like they're “burnt out and want to leave our field,” she said. Preschool classes have been able to stay open by moving to campuses where teachers are available, but county administration is looking at the best way to retain teachers. This includes giving more recognition to teachers who have stuck with the job through the pandemic, even with “all the policies and procedures that have been put on them,” Scott said.

Hiring pre-K teachers takes time too, she said, as it’s critical to find people who are passionate about educating preschoolers.

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

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

“A lot of people that are really invested in this program had thought that we would be utilizing more, 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, this is why we’ve seen this fluctuation. From my standpoint, I think we’re in a good place, and I think we’ll continue to see usage go up and up. It’s reminding those people that are really invested in this program that before PEEPS was here those children weren’t in these high-quality spots.”

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Providing one kid with a high-quality preschool education is better than none, Scott said. There’s still plenty of good in helping just one child because of the long-term impact a good early education makes, she said.

“Even though we’re only at 50 percent, we’ve helped that many more children and families get into these high-quality environments and impact their lifelong education journey,” she said. “Even if it’s just one child and one family, we’re making a difference.”

Parents can start the process of getting assistance from PEEPS and finding a high-quality pre-K program for their child or children by going to the Child Care Resource and Referral’s website, clicking on “search for child care” and filling out 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 TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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