On a Thursday morning in January, from his home in Seattle, a boy in Kevin Gallagher’s kindergarten class popped the cap off his green scented marker and took a big sniff.

Was it sweet, like a Granny Smith? Or citrusy, like a lime? For anyone in his virtual kindergarten class, it was hard to tell. But the moment was fleeting, as Mr. Gallagher and his teaching intern André Silberman were speaking again, instructing the 5- and 6-year-olds to stay on task. Use the green marker to underline the word “fish” on their work sheets, they said — a “third grade” vocabulary word that would strengthen their reading abilities. Visible only through his screen, the boy moved the marker from his nose to the paper.

“It would be great to hear everyone read the page together,” said Mr. Gallagher, as the Bryant Elementary teacher is known to his students. “I like this part a lot.” 

Suddenly a chorus of falsettos was reading at once, following Mr. Gallagher’s finger as it moved from word to word.

Gallagher’s first task is to guide his students through academic lessons like this one. As kindergartners, they are some of the youngest learners attending school remotely this year, and among a group that many teachers, parents and education experts feared were most likely to suffer academically during the pandemic, since they aren’t used to sitting still or focusing for hours at a time. Gallagher’s second goal is more difficult: to help his students stay connected to their peers and build social bonds critical for early development. 

Kevin Gallagher, a kindergarten teacher at Bryant Elementary in Seattle, gives a Stars &  Stripes depiction to Stuart Baker, 5, who came to Bryant with mom Carly to pick up school materials this month. Teaching intern André Silberman holds sheets with geometry shapes, weather science and math study to hand out to students. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Through trial and error, Gallagher has refined his style to keep his students engaged. His first attempt at remote teaching last spring involved a time-consuming and solitary recording schedule. He would dress up in costumes and create YouTube lessons for his students to watch on their own schedule. This school year, he spends a couple of hours online with his students each morning, and for an hour or so in the afternoon. Most of his students keep their cameras on as they move through reading and math lessons, or talk about current events.

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Without widely available academic data, it is difficult to say definitively whether young learners are falling behind relative to older peers. There’s no statewide information on learning loss so far, but subtle indicators suggest many students are slipping backward. Education experts say a variety of factors affect whether young children are making progress this school year. It depends on family circumstances, such as financial and housing security, children’s attitudes and individual teachers’ abilities to keep students’ attention. 

What is easier to notice, but not necessarily easier to track, many parents and teachers report, is the pandemic’s social and emotional toll on children. That is especially difficult since these young children are just beginning their academic chapter.

“The social-emotional learning, the meaning making, the love of learning. Those are the unmeasurable things that I’m hearing a lot more concerns about,” said Dr. Jenny Radesky, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan. “Some kids, not being able to name their best friends. Or not really knowing the kids in their class.”

Over the past month, The Seattle Times returned to families, teachers and young children who during the summer had expressed concerns about the social fallout of online learning. The conversations showed that many of their earlier expectations met their new reality. Some children are performing well academically, but many families say their kids aren’t gaining important early learning lessons, like how to make friends. Parents say they’re heartbroken to hear their 5-year-olds say, “I hate school.”

Micah Nadiranto, 3, wants to check out the materials his sister Ariana, 5, has just received from kindergarten teacher Kevin Gallagher and teaching intern André Silberman at Bryant Elementary in Seattle recently. They’re there with mom Kirsten Tang. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Many of Gallagher’s students seem genuinely interested, and he offers lessons in how to make remote learning work. But his students are learning academic and sensory skills — how to spell, what different fruit-scented markers smell like, or that sniffing markers might not be the best idea — without the usual guidance that in-person learning provides. And interacting with peers is even more difficult. They struggle to unmute their microphones; many are still learning to read words that are key to using online learning platforms. When the children do speak, they often talk over each other. 

“For many of us [teachers], as dedicated as we are to the academics … creating the community is very challenging,” Gallagher said. 

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Social struggle

A few weeks ago, Brandee Mayton asked her twin daughters if they eventually wanted to go to school in person.

“They said, ‘no,’ because I can’t go with them,” Mayton said of her daughters Avery and Hailey, kindergartners in the Everett School District. “Right now they are just getting attached to me.”

There was a brief period over the summer when Mayton considered keeping her children from enrolling in kindergarten altogether. Mayton, a single parent, was laid off early in the pandemic and was hoping to land a new job; if she was working, especially outside the home, it would be impossible for her daughters to do remote schooling. Mayton wasn’t alone in her consideration: Kindergarten enrollment in Washington dropped about 14% this school year, suggesting many families held their children back.

Mayton still hasn’t found a job. This has allowed her to enroll her girls, who now are in the same online class. Five days a week, she said, her daughters are “staring at a computer” from 9:15 a.m. until 2:40 p.m. The girls’ attention spans are short, and it’s tough to keep them from leaving their class to spend time with her or play with toys, Mayton said. Several months in, their routine is finally getting easier. But what hasn’t changed, she said, is a lack of social connection between her daughters and their classmates and teacher. 

“My daughters still complain about that. Why are they muted, why can’t they share, why isn’t the teacher calling on them even though they raised their hand?”

This period of childhood — ages 3 to 6 or so — is when children learn important social skills, such as how to interact with others, self regulate their thoughts and behaviors, and how to read peers’ and adults’ expressions or tone of voice, said Stephanie Jones, professor of education at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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Jones says there’s little research on whether children can learn these skills through a screen as well as they might in person, but there’s some reason to believe that even online interactions with classmates and teachers can help children learn to take turns or read emotions. In short, she said, if young children have support they will keep learning skills now, and will bounce back from what they missed when schools open.

A sign posted on 
kindergarten teacher Kevin Gallagher’s classroom window at Bryant Elementary in Seattle reads “Great learning and teaching happen in 103.” (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

When children eventually return to school in person, teachers and parents may have better indicators for how young children are faring socially. In the meantime, Jones and her colleagues are collecting data from a cohort of more than 3,000 Massachusetts families of 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds to gauge what’s happening now. So far, most families have reported significant disruption to their daily lives, and high levels of stress and anxiety. 

Teachers report similar concerns. In a summer survey of parents and teachers of young children, 62% of early education teachers reported they were “very concerned” about establishing relationships with their students. The survey, from the national nonprofit Defending the Early Years (DEY), is small and only includes 314 respondents. But it offers worrying signs that a lack of connection between students and their teachers correlates with a more difficulty transitioning to online schooling. 

The survey also found that the longer young children spent on a computer each day, the worse their experience with remote learning tended to be. 

Academic gains?

But families reported several benefits of remote learning, said Denisha Jones, who ran the survey and is co-director of DEY, such as more family time and flexibility to play outside. Recognizing that children are learning all the time, she said, could help educators connect these at-home experiences to their curriculum.

“This COVID-19 experience shows that children learn in lots of different ways,” she said. “Right now we need to capitalize on that. Instead of [taking] this negative approach that our children are suffering, they are falling behind, [ask] what are they getting out of this? What are they learning?”

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We don’t yet have a clear picture of children’s academic progress this year, said Soojin Oh Park, assistant professor of education at the University of Washington, let alone differences across remote learning environments, such as pandemic learning pods, private tutors or those mostly managed by caregivers. Standardized test scores may eventually provide some insight, but district leaders and education experts are worried some younger children might be getting help from their parents since testing is largely remote. 

After handing out learning materials to his kindergarten students for almost 90 minutes, Bryant Elementary teacher Kevin Gallagher packs up. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Anecdotally, some families report that their children are accelerating — not falling behind — academically. Denton Thorbeck, whose son Brantley goes to Pine Tree Elementary in Kent, said that midway through the fall semester he and his wife made the decision to move their son up from kindergarten to first grade. Both parents work at schools, a big advantage as they tried to assess how Brantley was progressing, and they noticed his test and phonics scores were high.

But those scores only reveal a small part of how Brantley is coping with online learning, Thorbeck said. Brantley has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and keeps Legos at his desk to keep his fingers busy when he feels fidgety. The computer screen is often a barrier, not a window, to interaction with his class.

“It’s hard to measure in these times what ‘successful’ is,” Thorbeck said. Every day, his son says, “I hate school.” 

“Hate is a super strong word, especially at our house. It’s really hard for me as a teacher to hear that because I know his teacher, she’s doing an amazing job. But online learning, especially for these young [kids], is just so much harder.”

Thorbeck says he’s holding onto hope that his son will come to love school once he experiences recess, or spending time with friends in-person. 

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For now, teachers like Gallagher are constantly innovating to keep their students’ attention. Some strategies are kind of gimmicky — when Gallagher is “shaking things up” in his lessons, he shakes his computer and his students wag their heads. Others are … old school, like seeing his students in real life.

Every two weeks or so, he invites his students and their families to school, where he meets them outside — masked and at a distance. On his classroom’s window, visible from outside the school building, Gallagher posted a sign that reads “Great learning and teaching happen in 103.”

Sometimes his students bring him pictures they’ve drawn or cookies they’ve baked. These afternoon meetups to pick up school materials are also an opportunity to “just shine,” he said, and see their peers “in 3D.”

He wants his students to be able to look back in 20 years and think, “that was a screwed-up year, but it was OK,” he said. “That would give me great peace of mind.”