The first day of school for kindergarten students has long represented one of the first rites of passage encountered by children.
This year, it’s a little different.
Instead of sniffly goodbyes at the door of the classroom, parents are home with their students and the teacher appears behind a screen.
“You’re definitely missing out on a milestone,” said Brandi Backus, mother of a kindergarten student. Her son Dominic started school last week, behind a Chromebook instead of behind a chalkboard.
“He doesn’t know any different,” Backus said. While the rite of passage of entering the kindergarten classroom might not be occurring, Backus said it’s clear how hard the teachers are working to engage the students. “It’s kind of fun; he gets into it and I feel like he’s learning stuff.”
Erika Kunders, a kindergarten teacher at McBride Elementary School in St. Helens, said the transition to online education triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic has been a learning experience for everyone.
“We are surviving and we are pushing forward and doing the best we can with lots of families using the internet at the same time every day,” Kunders wrote in an email to The Chronicle.
A typical kindergarten class is no stranger to distractions and interruptions to learning, but this year classrooms face a new kind of distraction: internet lags.
“The challenges I have had this year have been trying to support families with the technical difficulties with Zoom meetings and issues out of my control (internet connections, lagging time on live teaching days),” Kunders said.
Backus said she’s noticed how hard the teachers are working to keep students focused, even through the challenges of virtual learning.
“There are a lot of positives. I think the teachers are doing a really good job; [Dominic’s teacher] does a really good job of keeping him focused on her,” Backus said. Sometimes, though, she can see that he gets tired of looking at the screen.
“The first week maybe is a learning curve, but overall they’re getting a lot of lessons out of it,” she said, except for those social interactions with other students, which she said was sad to miss, but necessary.
Kindergarten is a developmentally critical time for students to form connections and begin to learn social skills with each other. While learning online, the teachers are working hard to ensure those skills can still be developed.
“Making friends is always something kindergarteners care about at the beginning of the school year and these first months are key to building trust with friends and celebrating our strengths,” Kunders said.
To help accomplish that goal Kunders has made an effort to make class as interactive as possible, by including social activities and games for the kids to play and get to know each other.
“I have needed to reevaluate the pacing of my curriculum to make sure I am still making time for building a community atmosphere with my online class,” Kunders said.
Staying connected with the families is also important. Despite classes being held virtually, Kunders said she is making home visits as needed and having individual Zoom meetings.
“I also continue celebrating birthdays and mailing letters with encouraging words and letting them know I care about their child and their success in school,” Kunders said.
Within her classroom she has added a bulletin board to display student work and share with families so they know she is invested in and proud of her students, she said.