When the class of 2033 — this year’s incoming kindergartners — graduates from high school, how will they remember their first-ever day of school?
Here’s what many won’t talk about: First-day jitters when they kiss their caregivers goodbye. Hugging new teachers. Chasing friends at recess.
Instead, maybe they’ll remember this: Picking up a laptop at a school building that’s indefinitely closed. Logging on to Zoom (or struggling to) to meet their teacher. Staring into a camera as they greet new classmates.
“It’s not going to be, ‘Let’s go to school and have our first day together,’ ” said Denton Thorbeck, whose 5-year-old son Brantley will begin school online at Pine Tree Elementary in Kent, where he works as a special-education teacher. “It’s going to be, ‘OK, you log on to the computer, and I’ll go to my office and log on to mine.’ ”
School is about less than a month away, and thousands of Washington’s youngest learners and their families are grappling with the reality that it won’t begin as usual.
According to recommendations announced by Gov. Jay Inslee and the state’s top health and education officials, it’s unsafe for a vast majority of Washington’s 1.1 million students to return to classrooms for in-person learning this fall, including in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.
It’s not the send-off families imagined for their kindergarten students. For some, it’s a relief: families will have more time with their youngsters, who may be safer at home than in a classroom. For others, it’s a disappointment: they were eager for school to start so they could get back to work.
Some have decided to forgo this school year all together, and say they’d rather hold their kindergartner back until class resumes in-person. Statewide kindergarten enrollment figures aren’t available until after the school year begins, so it’s tough to know how many families have made such a decision. But several districts are reporting lower than usual kindergarten enrollment. Bellevue expected about 1,279 kindergartners, but officials said only 1,039 had enrolled as of last week, and preregistration was also down 25% at Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver.
Some families are transferring outside their neighborhood schools. At least one of the state’s online schools, a public school called Washington Connections Academy, which is run by a for-profit company, says its kindergarten enrollment is up 38% over last year. Others have decided to home school. Since schools are funded based on the number of students they enroll, families’ decisions to opt-out may result in shrinking budgets.
There’s no easy option for Brandee Mayton, who said she was laid off after the coronavirus struck Washington and is sending out resumes for work as a behavioral therapist. Mayton, a single parent, has 5-year-old twin daughters who were set to begin kindergarten at an Everett elementary school. The district is beginning with remote learning in the fall.
If Mayton can find a job, she has to take it, she said. But going back to work would mean she can’t stay home to guide her daughters through daily online lessons. She’ll have no choice but to send them to day care, hold them back a year, and do workbooks with them at night. “Their education is important. But me working and providing for my family is number one,” she said.
Parents of some older students have also decided to hold their children back. Kelly Jennings, whose 6-year-old was in half-day kindergarten last year, has decided to enroll him in full-day kindergarten instead of first grade. “I don’t want him to feel behind at all because of this,” she said. “I know that kindergarten is a foundation for reading and I want to make sure all those core values are instilled.”
Many kindergarten teachers say they’re waiting to hear what school days will look like this fall. Some of these details will be decided during bargaining between districts and teacher unions.
No matter how daily schedules shake out, school needs to be more than just screens, many say. Kindergartners learn to share with classmates during playtime. They collect rocks and leaves to learn about colors and the natural world. Learning is social, it’s hands-on.
Yazmín Gil, a Spanish dual language kindergarten teacher at Hilltop Elementary in Burien, says she won’t let those critical aspects of kindergarten go missing when school begins online this fall. Her online lessons from the spring were lively — in a science lesson, she videotaped herself mixing soil and seeds in an oversized bucket to show how plants grow. She’s planning to make her lessons more interactive this school year, she said.
She’s tentatively hoping to meet her incoming families in person — outside, and at a distance. Maybe they’ll sit at separate picnic tables on school grounds and try to get to know each other, she said.
“I don’t want to just get to know the child’s name. But mom and dad’s name, or the auntie or the brother and the sister. Just embrace the whole family,” she said.
If she’s able to hold these meetings, she said, she intends to help set up her students’ district-issued iPads so they are ready to sign on without issue.
Thorbeck says he knows his teacher colleagues want to find solutions that work.
But social skills? Learning to take turns, play games and process emotions? Brantley, Thorbeck’s son, might be left to learn those skills later, perhaps as a first-grader, or in bits and pieces when he interacts with classmates online.
Said Thorbeck, “His first meaningful school relationships are going to be formed through the internet.”