From the first time we dropped him off at nursery school, our son has always enjoyed going to school. Admittedly, in the earliest days, my husband and I employed a bit of “drop and run” strategy – we didn’t want to linger at the door and make it harder for him to detach. That was probably more for my sake than his, but it worked for us. While other parents struggled with separation anxiety and tears, our kid gave us goodbye kisses, waved, and toddled off into the classroom without any fuss.
On his first “meet the teacher” day for 3-year-old preschool, he couldn’t understand why we had stuck around. “You go now?” he asked us, assuming that he was there for the first day of preschool, not just a brief open house. He was ready to get down to business. Last year, when he started 4-year -old preschool, he walked into the classroom without even casting a glance over his shoulder and was disappointed when I came to pick him up because he wanted to stay at school.
Halfway through the year, we started to pump him up for kindergarten. The school buses always made their trip past our house as we were loading up to head to preschool, so as he waved excitedly, we would remind him that he’d soon be getting on one of those buses to go to kindergarten. When we were in the car headed to his swim lessons in the afternoon, we’d see clusters of parents waiting at bus stops for their kids, and I told him I’d be one of those moms, standing there waiting for him to come home from school. He couldn’t wait.
I couldn’t wait, either. After he was born in 2015, I decided to leave my 13-year career as an elementary school teacher so I could stay home with him and focus on my writing, which had always been a passion of mine. I have never regretted the decision, but as a graduate student and freelance writer, I was looking forward to him going to kindergarten so I would be able to finish my thesis, look for a job, and hunt for a literary agent.
When his preschool closed in early March due to the pandemic, I found myself doing “Mom school” with my son on the days that he didn’t have his hour-long Zoom preschool meetings. I wanted to maintain some sort of structure for his days. He loved going to school, and suddenly, that was taken away from him.
You can take the teacher out of the classroom, but I guess you can’t take the classroom out of the teacher. I bought sight word games and math manipulatives. Every day he practiced his handwriting and we worked through a series of leveled readers that taught phonics. We practiced cutting and pasting. I made sure he memorized his address and my phone number. We counted to 100 – by 1s, 5s, and 10s. His reading took off.
Our school district initially decided they would open in the fall with a hybrid learning model – with two days a week in person and the rest for asynchronous/online activities and teacher planning time. Parents also had the option for kids to attend school online. My husband and I figured a couple days a week would be better than nothing. At least our son would get to be with other kids. After the way the school year ended – with a socially distanced preschool graduation in the school parking lot and a drive-by 5th birthday celebration – I was excited that my son would get to experience kindergarten with his friends.
But, as a former teacher, I also knew that, even if he got to go, Covid-19 kindergarten wouldn’t look anything like it was supposed to. His class would have to be split up to allow for proper social distancing. He wouldn’t get to hug his teacher or give her a high-five. There would be no story time on the rug, no kids squished together around a table to do art projects or play games. Was that really going to be better?
To say I had mixed feelings was an understatement. What if someone got sick? What if a classmate got infected, or one of their parents, or one of his teachers? What if he got sick, or one of us? What if schools closed again? We’d just be back to square one.
When our school district changed tack and announced that they would be opening online only, I felt a sense of relief. The decision about whether or not to send our kid to school had been made for us.
But the mixed feelings quickly returned. Virtual kindergarten? Every day? For the whole day? How in the world would it work? How would the kids do art and music and PE? How would they get to know each other? How would they get to know their teachers?
While I understand the school district’s decision, I was heartbroken that this was how the year would be starting for my kid and other kids his age. My heart hurt for my former students, some of whom are going into their senior year of high school this year. And my heart went out to all of my friends and former colleagues who had not only managed to successfully wrap up the end of a school year online, but were now facing the start of a new year, with a new class, and a new set of challenges.
My mind boggles when I think about what it must be like to try to plan online instruction for the whole first quarter. (Or longer – who knows?) There is so much to prepare during a normal school year. So much time is spent getting to know each other and teaching rules and expectations, routines, and organizational skills. While teachers often return to familiar lessons and activities from their tried and true bag of tricks at the start of the school year, this year is unlike any other. The teacher in me worried about how you could make a new group of kids feel like a family when everyone is on the other side of a screen. The teacher in me stressed about technology problems. The teacher in me wondered how you keep a classful of students engaged when they’re sitting in front of a computer for hours at a time.
The mom in me had those same worries. Would my kid feel a connection to his teacher and classmates? What if there are problems with the video and he gets frustrated? What if he is distracted having me by his side? What if virtual instruction dampens his enthusiasm for learning?
I eventually decided that rather than worry about it, all we could do was take it one day at a time. It’s not just different or difficult for us… Everybody is in the same boat. And we’ll all get through this somehow.
During the last week of summer, we began preparing our son for the start of school just like we normally would have – we set an alarm, started practicing his morning routine, and explained his class schedule. We bought school supplies and set up his school area, letting him decorate the wall above his desk with a mix of LEGO posters and educational signs.
We’re now going on our third week of virtual kindergarten and I can honestly say that I am feeling much more at ease. We had an online meet the teacher and he was so excited to see his teachers’ smiling faces. The first few school days started out with short online meetings, but to build the kids’ online stamina, the teachers have gradually extended their lessons. The kids get breaks to get up and move around and there are plenty of different activities to keep the students interested and engaged. Our son has really enjoyed checking out all of the specials’ teachers “virtual classrooms” and exploring all of the extra activities they have offered.
Have there been technical hiccups? A few. We figured out ways to work around them. Has he been distracted by me, as I monitor his work and remind him to wait to be called on before clicking the “unmute” button? Maybe. We’re working on that. I’m trying not to hover and have actually been able to sit nearby and get some work done. Has his enthusiasm for learning suffered? Not in the slightest.
When it’s time to get ready for school, he hurries into the bathroom to brush his teeth and get dressed, then rushes to his desk to log on. (Full disclosure: if he asks to stay in his PJs, I let him.) During lessons, he hangs on his teachers’ every word. He listens to stories with rapt attention. He raises his hand again and again, eager to participate in class discussions. He’s learning his classmates’ names and faces. The teachers offer movement breaks and snack breaks so that the kids can get out of their seats and get the wiggles out. He is excited to show us the song he learned in music or the exercises they did in PE. Every afternoon, he can’t wait to get started on his homework. I know it won’t always be like that, so I’ll take it.
Kindergarten might not look the way we thought it would, but I am thrilled that my son is still enjoying it. I am so proud of how resilient, adaptable, and eager he is. I am so grateful for his teachers. We are lucky to belong to a school community with amazing, hardworking educators who have done everything they can to get this virtual school year off to a REALLY great start.