Will Kindergartens Be Empty This Fall?

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Satiria Clayton was looking forward to her 5-year-old son Cassius starting kindergarten this year in Tempe, Ariz., but the recent spike in coronavirus cases has left her, like many other parents, worried about what to expect.

Satiria Clayton was looking forward to her 5-year-old son Cassius starting kindergarten this year in Tempe, Ariz., but the recent spike in coronavirus cases has left her, like many other parents, worried about what to expect. “In an ideal would I would love to stay at home and teach him,” she said. “The reality is I have to send him to school.”

—Courtesy of Satiria Clayton

In a normal time, Michelle Bartley’s daughter Nyanne would be among the 4 million or so kindergarten students going off to school later this year.

But the coronavirus pandemic makes these times far from normal. And Bartley, who lives in Pembroke Pines, Fla., will be keeping her child at home.

It’s not her first choice.

“As an only child, it would be good [for Nyanne] to have that interaction,” said Bartley, a project leader for a bank. “It’s really sad to hear your child say, ‘After the virus, we can do this. After the virus, we can do that.’”

For a brief time in the spring, before cases started spiking in Florida, Bartley thought a return to traditional school was an option. But now, cases in Florida are sharply increasing, and the south Florida region where Bartley lives is particularly hard-hit.

Bartley lives with her mother, and frequently visits her father, both of whom are vulnerable to coronavirus complications because of their age. In-person schooling poses too high a risk to her daughter’s grandparents, she finally decided.

“That’s why I have to make sure we stay safe. Because we still want to see them,” she said.

Sending a child off to kindergarten has a deep emotional resonance in the lives of many parents. They fill social media with pictures of their children standing with oversized backpacks or holding signs marking the occasions. Schools lean into this, too, soothing worried parents or shy children with orientations and classroom visits.

The pandemic has disrupted all of that. And there are signs that families are holding off on registering their children for kindergarten, perhaps waiting to see what school may look like before committing. Districts around the country have reported that they are seeing enrollment numbers lower than what would be typical for this time of year, including in Fulton County, Ga., Montgomery County, Md., and Longview, Wash., among others.

Kindergarten enrollment is slower than expected in many of the districts served by the Alleghany Intermediate Unit, which provides support to 42 school systems in the Pittsburgh area.

But school districts are stepping up their outreach efforts, and there has been an uptick in kindergarten enrollment recently, said Chris Rodgick, a senior program director for the educational agency. She oversees a kindergarten readiness program for the region called Hi5!, which works to ensure on-time kindergarten registration and smooth transitions for children.

“I would just say to parents go ahead and register, and you can make a decision based on what you see later,” Rodgick said. “I do think it’s great for kids to be in a group setting with other kids who are their same age.”

‘A Little Scary’

Satiria Clayton, who lives in Tempe, Ariz., with her kindergarten-age son Cassius, is also seeing coronavirus cases shoot up in her state.

“It is a little scary going into this kindergarten year,” Clayton said. Her son loved his preschool program, but it ended abruptly, with only a few emails sent out with suggestions for home activities.

Clayton was also furloughed from her job as a nutritional manager at Arizona State University. She has been able to spend important, quality time with her son, but she’s expected to return to work this month.

“In an ideal world, I would love to stay at home and teach him. The reality is I have to send him to school,” Clayton said. “It’s so stressful as a parent. But at some point, you have to just let them go.”

Kindergarten is more than just a time of high emotion for parents. Kindergarten readiness is an area that has received increased attention from educators and researchers as well. Kindergarten readiness assessments are mandatory in more than half the states, with the idea that they can help teachers better understand their students’ needs. Other states and communities have programs intended to help children get off to a strong academic start by smoothing the transition between home and formal schooling.

Michelle Springs, a kindergarten teacher in Lancaster, S.C., is in her second year participating in a program called Countdown to Kindergarten. She and other teachers in the program make five home visits over the summer, plus one in-school visit, to help prepare children for kindergarten who have been identified as needing extra support for success.

In her first year, Springs was able to work with eight students. This year, it has only been two. Her only face-to-face visit with students was when she went to their houses to drop off kits of learning materials.

“Personally, I would love to be back in the classroom,” Springs said. “I feel like a duck out of water, doing everything virtually. I don’t want any child to have less of a quality education when it’s done virtually.”

But school has to be safe for everyone, she said. And the reopening details, for her school and district, are still up the air. She understands why it’s tough for parents to know what to do. “This is their baby,” she said.

Communicating With Parents

First Things First Arizona supports programs that serve children from birth to age 5, and their parents. As part of that, the organization’s work typically includes helping families prepare for the transition to school. But Ginger Sandweg, the organization’s senior director of early learning, said that schools also need to adapt for the needs of young children, which can be quite different from the needs of older students.

“Most pre-K and kindergarten children have not been in structured environments before, so the things we take for granted when planning for older kids (and their families) we cannot take for granted with pre-K or children new to school,” Sandweg said. That means that preschool and kindergarten teachers should be at the table when it comes to planning for the upcoming school year, she said.

Another challenge for both districts and parents is that the parents of kindergartners are not yet plugged into the school system. While districts have multiple ways to reach families of children already enrolled in school, parents who are new to the school system aren’t yet part of that communication chain.

With little direct information to go on, parents are having to rely on bits of information and their guts when it comes to finally making a decision for the new school year.

Whitney Brennan, who lives in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., hasn’t yet heard much from her local district about what they are planning for the upcoming school year. But she wants her twins, Jasper and Griffin, to enroll in in-person classes. Trying to juggle child care plus work schedules was overwhelming this spring.

“We don’t know how we’re going to handle anything that’s not full time,” said Brennan, who works for a state environmental agency. “We’re going to have to send them to some kind of day care anyway.” And she believes that children can be taught to adhere to some safety measures, if they see others doing it.

“People are being very anti-mask, without looking at the science and finding out what kids can really handle,” Brennan said.

Elias Kass, a naturopathic primary care doctor in Seattle, has heard that kindergarten may be available five days a week in the fall, which would be a welcome relief after juggling child care this spring for his older child and his 18-month-old.

“I could do the academic pieces of it with him, but I still need child care,” Kass said. A fully remote or hybrid schedule would be nearly impossible to accommodate with his work schedule, he said.

“Basically parents are being left with three full-time jobs—parenting and also teaching” while trying to work for pay, Kass said. “It’s just really difficult trying to do all those things.”

Maria Pitale, who lives in Turnersville, N.J., still hasn’t quite decided what the new school year will look like for her son Antonio. None of the choices—bringing in babysitters or sending him to a school building—feel perfectly safe.

“We’re just kind of waiting and I just don’t know how much choice we’re going to get,” Pitale said. “If my kid cries, are they going to hug him, or will they be hands off because we don’t touch kids now? It’s that kind of tender stuff that I’m worried about.”

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