For the past 10 years, Portland Public Schools in Oregon has been one of several districts in Multnomah County to offer the Early Kindergarten Transition program for children entering Title I schools. The three-week summer session targets incoming students who have little to no experience in an early-childhood education program.
The model has been found to have ongoing positive impacts, such as higher attendance rates and a greater likelihood of reaching early literacy benchmarks. It gives students a “step up on learning,” said Emily Glasgow, the district’s director of early learner programs, and provides a “community-building” experience for parents, who often become leaders in their children’s classrooms.
But now “all bets are off” on whether this year’s cohort of rising kindergartners will have the same opportunity to learn their way around the building, interact with their future classmates, and practice taking turns or separating from their parents.
“We’re not sure it’s going to be able to happen,” Glasgow said — not only because there’s no clear guidance yet on when children can gather in school, but also because of potential budget cuts.
'A slower start'
Almost 4 million children enter kindergarten every year — and principals are often urged to work with early learning providers to create a bridge between preschool or child care and the K-12 system. But many of those children might experience a very different type of transition this fall — especially if they haven’t been in a formal classroom setting.
“When children have never been part of an early learning environment, life in a classroom comes as a shock,” said Lindsay Dunckel, the school readiness program planner for First 5 Sacramento in California, which works with school districts in the county to run summer transition camps. “Distance learning can help with some things, but not with those fundamental experiences.”
Even if children were in preschool when centers and schools began to close in March, the classroom environment will feel like a “distant memory in a young child’s mind,” Dunckel said. And without summer transition programs, teachers won’t have those “resident experts” who are able to model proper classroom behavior for their peers. “Kindergarten,” she said, “will get off to a slower start.”
In Michigan — still under a stay-at-home order — the spring activities that help children in the state’s Great Start Readiness Program begin transitioning into kindergarten will be conducted virtually, said Pat Sargent, who manages the program at the Michigan Department of Education. These include a second parent-teacher conference for the school year and possible visits to a kindergarten classroom.
Sargent said the programs are expected to “mirror” as much as possible the transition plans that usually occur in-person.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s Department of Early Care and Learning still plans to run in-person Rising Kindergarten and Rising Pre-K programs, but to reduce the sessions from six to four weeks. And in districts where schools are still closed, the department hopes to work with Head Start providers, which are receiving funds for summer programs through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
It's unclear to what extent those summer Head Start programs will operate virtually, but new survey data from the National Head Start Association shows 60% of respondents said they have remained in contact with all or nearly all of their enrolled families.
“When children have never been part of an early learning environment, life in a classroom comes as a shock.”
School readiness program planner, First 5 Sacramento
Forming ‘connections through a screen’
Experts say it will be difficult for young children to get as much value out of virtual transition activities over the summer as they would the real thing. But there are still strategies educators can use to familiarize children and their parents with the routines and expectations of kindergarten.
A video call between the teacher and the family is the first step, suggested Aaron Loewenberg, an early learning policy analyst at New America, a think tank. Teachers can also gather information from parents on whether their child has attended preschool, how often they read books together and what interests the child has.
“It's important to establish a positive relationship between teacher and family from the beginning, and these calls can really help with that,” he said. “In the absence of a reliable internet connection, a traditional phone call can accomplish the same goals.”
But Ashley Jenkins, a kindergarten teacher at BIA Charter School in Norcross, Georgia, said it’s hard to imagine meeting her future students remotely.
“Since students are new, and young, the thought of meeting each other virtually for the first time may also be intimidating and students may struggle to form connections through the screen,” she said. “I will definitely have to find ways to adapt some icebreakers and get-to-know-you games through virtual meetings, so we can build those bonds.”
Principals, Loewenberg said, can also create an orientation video answering kindergarten parents’ questions about topics such as uniforms, transportation, school policies and methods of communication.
And if schools don’t already have a process for sharing data between preschool and kindergarten teachers, this is the year to begin that exchange, he said.
“When I was a kindergarten teacher, I wanted to know as much information as possible about my students before the first day of school,” he said. “Any data that can be shared between pre-K and kindergarten teachers, whether it be assessment data, progress reports from the pre-K year or just anecdotal data about a student's strengths and weaknesses, are very valuable to know prior to the start of school.”
Schools, he said, can also still distribute transition “toolkits” to incoming kindergarten families — through grab-and-go meal sites — that might include a book, some educational games or other supplies that will get children thinking about the next step.
Dunckel agrees using digital tools over the summer to connect with incoming kindergartners is better than no program at all. Children can still practice raising their hand or waiting to be called on during a Zoom call. Teachers, she said, could also “walk children through a day” at school, using photos or videos to show them areas of the classroom, such as where to hang their backpack, or the routine for picking up lunch.
She also encourages parents to take their children for walks around the school if they are not able to get inside for in-person introductions or tours.
‘Trial and error’
Even with the variety of “blueprints” and recommendations for reopening schools now circulating, officials say it’s still too soon to make any concrete plans for the beginning of the school year.
“What fall will look like for anybody is too up in the air,” Sargent said.
For kindergarten teachers, the question of starting off the year remotely — or having students in the classroom on a rotating basis — is creating “a lot of anxiety,” Glasgow said.
It’s one thing, she said, to be with a group of students for six months and then to shift to at-home learning. But it’s quite another to start the year with young children still at home.
Without the transition program this summer, Glasgow said the district is also rethinking how the school day will look when children are in the classroom. She’s pushing for more emphasis on social-emotional learning in the school day. Over the years, the Early Kindergarten Transition program, she said, has developed a “robust curriculum” which could be shared with kindergarten teachers.
And even if schools are open to all students, Glasgow is considering staggering the start of the year for incoming kindergartners anyway — a practice often used to help young children get comfortable in a new setting.
The district has been operating one emergency child care program for essential employees, which has given her some insight into practices recommended for groups. Teachers, for example, are using pool noodles to show children how to keep their distance from each other.
One advantage kindergarten teachers will be able to bring to next year's students is they've now had some experience with how to teach remotely
"The good news is we wouldn’t be starting at square one figuring out how to do it," said Lani Schiff-Ross, the executive director of First 5 San Joaquin in California, which also provides funding for summer bridge programs. "Technology has definitely opened up more means of being creative at bringing learning to our children and families. We get as close as possible to touching and seeing them."
Jenkins is thinking about how to adapt her “all-about-me” activities to a digital format, such as having students create a photo journal of themselves they can share with their classmates.
“The biggest key to welcoming new kindergartners in the fall will be flexibility,” she said. “We can plan, but the truth is it is going to take some trial and error to figure out what works and what does not. Teachers are creative and problem-solvers, so I know we will be ready for the challenge, no matter what.”