TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — School is almost back in session in most Tampa Bay area counties, but parents of 4-year-old children are scrambling to find options while coronavirus cases continue to spread.

Voluntary Preschool, otherwise called VPK, is governed by the Florida Office of Early Learning, which is not currently offering a virtual option for parents.

That’s being reflected in the number of registrations and enrollments across Tampa Bay.

By July 31, the Early Learning Coalition in Polk County approved 3,720 VPK applications in Polk County. That’s a 20% decrease from the same time last year when there were 4,653 approved applications. 

The Early Learning Coalition of Pasco and Hernando Counties has also seen a notable decrease in VPK applications. Pasco County alone saw a more than 23% decrease in VPK applications this year.

That could be because some parents do not have the comfort level of bringing their children in, and some outreach efforts of the ELCs have been thwarted by social distancing mandates.

The problem for many parents is finding a virtual option to keep their preschoolers up-to-date before starting kindergarten next year.

But Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County CEO Lindsay Carson says there are options.

“We receive direction from the Florida Office of Early Learning which currently has no virtual option,” Carson says. “Developmentally, virtual VPK is not ideal. We don’t want kids in front of a screen and at that age, virtual learning is just too abstract,

But there are other ways to keep your child engaged while keeping them home.

“There are a few things that can happen,” Carson said. “There are some home visitation programs that are operating virtually, such as Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters, or HIPPY.”

The program helps parents prepare their children ages 3 through 5 for success in school.

Carson also suggested VROOM, an app with daily tips and activities to support early childhood development.

Eventually, though, providers may opt to adjust their VPK schedule from the standard, 180 three-hour days that make up the 540-hour program. Some providers could start in January and have it run for six hours.

“We want parents to have the flexibility to be comfortable and I expect that there will be more conversations to come in regards to COVID,” Carson said. “We can certainly agree that there’s no perfect solution right now.”