PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A third of children from low-income families are no longer attending Rhode Island’s Pre-K child care programs compared with before the pandemic.

Experts fear that without attending these pre-K programs — which provide good nutrition and education — these kids can enter elementary school far behind their wealthier peers.

The 2021 Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook, released Monday, provides a statistical snapshot of how children and families are doing across the state. It’s been published annually since 1995.

Rhode Island Kids Count Executive Director Elizabeth Burke Bryant calls child care an economic and educational engine — allowing parents to go to work, while children experience long-term benefits.

But data from the past year shows Rhode Island’s engine is sputtering.

“There has just been a tremendous impact of COVID on child care in Rhode Island and in the U.S.,” Bryant told Target 12.

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More than 10,000 children from low-income families participated in the state’s child care programs as of December 2019. A year later, that number had dropped to roughly 7,000 — a 34% decrease.

Head Start, the federal child care program, has also seen a dramatic decrease in enrollment in Rhode Island between 2019 and 2020. The number of 3- to 5-year-olds enrolled in local Head Start programs dropped 41% between October 2019 and October 2020, from 2,010 to 1,177.

Based on conversations with local families around the state, Bryant told Target 12 she attributes the decline to several factors: parents fearing the spread of COVID-19 in child care settings, parents losing jobs and staying home with their children, and parents electing to stay home with their children to help with distance learning.

Minerva Waldron, the director of the Over the Rainbow Learning Center, said about 80% of the children who use her facilities are enrolled in the R.I. Department of Human Services’ Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), which provides subsidies to families. Their enrollment “decreased immensely,” she said.

Over the Rainbow has two locations, in Providence and Johnston, serving children from 6 weeks old up to 5 years old. “We went from our center having 100% capacity, and right now we have 50% capacity,” Waldron said.

Leanne Barrett is a coordinator of the Right From the Start Campaign, which advocates for state policies benefiting children and their families. She argued high-quality child care has a remarkable impact on children from low-income families, helping to close the gap with their wealthier peers by the time they enter kindergarten.

“Rhode Island pre-K closes the gap by three-quarters,” she said.

But with a third of low-income families no longer utilizing these child care programs, Barrett said she fears those kids may fall even further behind.

“By the time your child is entering kindergarten, you may be 18 months behind your peers if you’re from a family that is low-income,” she said.

And education is not the only service licensed centers provide — Bryant said children also receive consistent, quality nutrition they might not otherwise get at home.

You can read the full 2021 Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook here.

Tolly Taylor ( is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook