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Why kids are having a hard time returning to school — especially kindergarteners

A masked person in an orange vest aims a temperature-taking device at a child.
Kindergartener Franky Cervantes has his temperature checked by school worker Selena Aguirre before entering Heliotrope Avenue Elementary School for the first day of in-class instruction.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Dear parents: If you’re gearing up for tears tomorrow, you’re not alone.

Tuesday will be the first day of on-campus instruction for about 40% of elementary students in the country’s second-largest school district. For many, I expect the tears will be tears of joy. Most LAUSD grade schoolers are returning to a campus they already know and love; their parents are both eager and anxious to see their children back in the classroom.

But for thousands of children my son’s age — those in kindergarten and transitional kindergarten — elementary school itself is terra incognita. Though they’ve been learning online with their teachers since August, April marks the very first time many have set foot inside a classroom.

“There’s great concern about all the transition years,” not only kindergarten, said Eric Gurna, president and chief executive of the nonprofit after-school program L.A.‘s Best. “The current senior class of 2021, kids who just went into middle school this year, and anybody who’s moved to a new school for any other reason.”

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Transition loomed so large in my conversations that I found myself singing it to the tune of “Tradition!” from “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Transition! Transition!

So what can we expect from these transitions? And how can they be made easier? Next week I’ll chat with a 12th-grader about how working seniors are shifting back into student mode. Fellow seniors, we’d love to hear from you too.

This week, though, I decided to catch up with the Carters, the mother-daughter kindergarten teachers I’d profiled last fall, to ask how they were managing the return to the classroom.

Karen Carter was already a veteran teacher at Bushnell Way Elementary School in Eagle Rock when her daughter Tai was born. In 2019, Tai Carter began teaching her own classroom down the hall. She currently teaches 5- and 6-year-olds in a hybrid transitional-traditional kindergarten class, while her mother has 4- and 5-year-olds in extended transitional kindergarten.

When I met them, Tai had been teaching remote for longer than she’d taught in person. Now, after 13 months co-working from home, she and her mother are returning to campus. I asked how they’d prepared their students for a kindergarten experience that looks about as much like Zoom school as “Clifford Goes to Kindergarten.”

Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

8 to 3: How many of your students are coming back this week?

Mrs. Carter: I have 11 in my class altogether: Six have chosen to be in class and five remote. I’m preparing the ones who are going back, but the ones who are staying remote, I’ve also started talking about when they go to kindergarten [next year], what it might look like. I bring Tai downstairs and say, this might be your kindergarten teacher.

Ms. Tai: I have a class of 18 and I believe that at this point only two of my students have chosen in-person learning. So it’ll be just the three of us. One is kindergarten and one is transitional kindergarten, so they’re on different learning levels as it is. I want to make it as enjoyable as possible for these couple of students, because we don’t know if they’re coming in because parents are working and they have no other choice.

For me, I know how to online teach at this point. But I’m about to go back into the classroom for the first time as a brand-new teacher, so we’ll see how it goes.

8 to 3: Most of your students have never been in a classroom before. Are they excited? What do you think they’re expecting, and how will reality be different this spring?

Mrs. Carter: I’m worried about the expectations. They can’t be within six feet of their friends, they can’t be within six feet of me. I think they’re envisioning something where they can play with their friends, and they do block play and the playhouse and be running around outside. Most of them are excited. I just worry that the expectation is high and we won’t meet it.

Ms. Tai: We’re not supposed to have too many materials, books, no toys at all, so I don’t even know what it’s going to look like. The desks are six feet apart, and our students who are in-person learning will still do a lot of their work and their lessons through their tablets.

Part of me also thinks they might really like it! They lacked this in-person socialization for so long, they might enjoy seeing just a couple of friends. It’s an empty classroom, not too many toys — but nothing compares to in person.

8 to 3: So much of kindergarten is about learning how to be in school. How do you think this past year of remote learning will impact children going forward?

Mrs. Carter: As far as coming back in August, there’s going to be a whole group of children coming to first grade who’ve never been in a kindergarten classroom. They’ll have to learn how to be in a line, how to raise your hand, how to go to the bathroom, on top of learning to read.

Ms. Tai: But I do notice that my students are really coming out of their shell through Zoom. They’ve found ways to communicate with each other — I have a couple of girls in my class who play house on their Zoom break time. These things I thought I wouldn’t see.

Mrs. Carter: We had a birthday and I ask everyone to bring something special [to show] the birthday boy. They really took into account this child’s personality and they brought something he would really enjoy.

Ms. Tai: Those things make me think that maybe they will enjoy seeing each other.

8 to 3: Ms. Tai mentioned there won’t really be blocks or toys or playhouses in the classroom this spring. How important are those materials to a kindergarten classroom?

Mrs. Carter: That’s probably the most important part of a TK or kindergarten classroom. That’s where they learn to problem-solve and share. In expanded transitional kindergarten and transitional kindergarten especially, they’re critically important. And we can’t have any of that: There’s no block play together; everything’s individual at least through the end of the year.

Ms. Tai: One of my students today, one of the two coming back, he said, “Ms. Tai, when I come back, I’m going to give you the biggest hug!” And I said, “I wish we could, but we have to stay safe.”

Mrs. Carter: We’re not supposed to hug them, which is heartbreaking.

Ms. Tai: We can’t even help them tie their shoes!

Mrs. Carter: Most teachers right now are very, very stressed out because there’s so many protocols that you have to keep in mind. It’s going to be really, really hard.

Ms. Tai: And for families that are choosing to stay online, we have to do twice as much now.

Mrs. Carter: I’m also thinking about equity — I want to make sure my online students get the same lessons and experiences as my in-person children get. We’re excited to get back to normal a little bit, but pretty nervous as well.

Wondering why there are so few children in the Carters’ classes?

An in-depth community-by-community analysis by my education team colleagues shows how in-person schooling is very different across the vast L.A. school district with near-capacity classes on the Westside and emptier schools elsewhere.

Does that mean parents like distanced learning? Guess again

Times education reporter Nina Agrawal writes that more than three-quarters of L.A. County parents surveyed by UCLA agreed that their children have been “substantially hurt” academically or socially by distanced learning. What’s more, the survey found big differences based on income: Families that are struggling economically are far more likely to believe that the pandemic has set their children back.

“The pandemic has exposed the two L.A.s again,” said former county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who is director of the Los Angeles Initiative at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, which co-published the survey. “There’s one … portion of our region that was really hard hit, had significant impacts on their income, on their jobs, on their kids in school, possibly on their health — and then you’ve got the rest of L.A., which did not get hit hard in an existential way. Those are two different worlds.”

In Boston, the school district polled parents and found that Asian Americans were by far the most reluctant to return to full-time in-person learning. Why? There may be many reasons, but one could be the rise in anti-Asian racism, the Boston Globe reported.

What hopes do you have for your child after high school? There’s a new survey about that too

This is the season for big family decisions about college admissions and what pathway is best. A recent nationwide survey by the Carnegie Foundation of New York and Gallup asked parents about aspirations for the post-high school lives of their children.

“The results are sobering, revealing a disconnect between the opportunities families want for their children and the postsecondary pathways available to them,” said LaVerne Evans Srinivasan, a Carnegie vice president. Just slightly more than half of U.S. parents hope their children will attend a four-year college, according to the survey. The other half want their children to complete non-college training or vocational programs, attend two-year college, or follow some other pathway. Democrats, those with college degrees and parents of Black children were most likely to want their children to go to a four-year college, the survey found.

Nearly two-thirds of all parents said their child faced barriers to following the parents’ preferred pathway. Finances were the biggest obstacle, but COVID-19, grades, lack of information and lack of available options were also cited. Parents said technical or vocational training and apprenticeships provide better career preparation than two- and four-year colleges, but they also knew the least about such “experiential learning” programs.

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For college-bound high school seniors, it’s crunch time: The colleges have all made their decisions about who should be admitted; now the ball is in the students’ court. My colleague Teresa Watanabe reports.

You’ve probably seen photos of classrooms where desks are semi-enclosed by plastic screens to protect against conronavirus transmission. Now some experts are questioning whether they’re necessary. One even thinks they could actually increase the risk of transmission. Here’s the story by Kristen Taketa at our sibling newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Finally, there’s an eye-opening study about gifted programs in K-12 schools such as those offered by LAUSD. According to the folks at the Hechinger Report, which specializes in education, the study found that such programs — which tend to be skewed toward white students — actually do very little good. Students’ reading and math scores barely budged after they went from regular classrooms to gifted ones. Moreover, “A startling finding from the study is that most students in gifted programs are only slightly above average in achievement, far from anyone’s idea of a genius,” Hechinger’s Jill Barshay writes.

Of course, as teachers like to say, all children are gifted. Parents too. Our gift to you is this newsletter, and if you’re not signed up, please do so now.

If you have kids in school who like sports, you also might be interested in my colleague Eric Sondheimer’s Prep Rally newsletter, which covers prep sports like a batting glove. You can sign up for that here.

Families, what has your back-to-school been like? Send us an email and let us know!

I want to hear from you.

Have feedback? Ideas? Questions? Story tips? Email me. And keep in touch on Twitter.


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