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State-funded pre-K seats from last year still available

SALISBURY — There are about 50 slots of state-funded pre-kindergarten still available in Rowan County as of Tuesday, and families can still apply for them.

Smart Start Rowan manages all of the N.C. Pre-K seats available in the county. Smart Start Programs Director Laura Villegas said she can still fill slots up until the end of the year, though it is uncommon to receive applications in the last quarter. Before too long Smart Start will be opening applications for next year as well.

This has been an unusual year for the program, which places children at a number of approved centers throughout the county. Villegas said most of the concerns from parents are COVID-19 related. Some centers have had temporarily shutdowns due to an infection or exposure on the recommendation of the Rowan County Health Department.

As the pandemic has evolved the state has continued to pass down new guidance and make changes as the year goes on, progressing through recommending virtual, blended and in-person models as the pandemic has changed during the past year.

Villegas said they received guidelines for beginning classes late and had to accommodate parents who wanted their children to learn virtually. Some parents received placements and later did not want them because of scheduling conflicts or a change of plans.

The state has tried to get centers on the same page throughout the year, but many of the seats are in Rowan-Salisbury Schools facilities during the school day, and the state made exceptions to allow local school districts to follow their own schedules. RSS has been using a blended model since it began classes in August.

“Applications have just stopped rolling in,” Villegas said, though she can still process them as they come in.

Villegas said slots will open over the course of the year for normal reasons like when a family moves, but having this number of seats open is not normal.

Villegas said there are no immediate financial implications because of the open seats, because this year the state decided to pay sites based on the number of seats they were awarded rather than the number of children they are actually serving.

Norma Honeycutt, executive director of Partners in Learning, an N.C. Pre-K center that provides private Pre-K seats and other family services and government assistance has allowed the center to keep its head above water during the pandemic.

PIL also has private-paying families and families who are subsidized who are not fully funded by government grants.

“It has been very confusing, very different,” Villegas said. “I’m so thankful that families and our sites have been gracious and understanding that we’re waiting for guidelines or ‘OK we’ve got the guidelines now so give us a day to read through them,’ because they’re not a page, it’s many, many pages of information.”

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