The transition to kindergarten can be a stressful time for students and families even in normal times. For many, the start of kindergarten signifies the beginning of formal schooling and all the excitement and challenges that go along with such a transition: a brand new building, new teachers, new expectations, and a different routine. As kindergarten teachers will tell you, it’s not unusual for the first day to include a good bit of tears, from students and parents alike.
Of course, we’re not currently living in anything like normal times. The coronavirus pandemic has claimed over 130,000 American lives and upended the routines of just about everyone. It has thrown into doubt the status of the school year slated to begin in the fall and has curtailed many of the usual transition activities designed to ensure entering kindergarten students and families feel comfortable and prepared for the first day of school. Communities across the country are being forced to get creative with how to ensure a smooth transition to kindergarten in a time where in-person activities and communication might not be possible.
In a 2019 report, we highlighted the transition work in the Altgeld-Riverdale neighborhood of Chicago. Typically, activities take place such as joint meetings between pre-K and kindergarten teachers, family activity nights hosted at local elementary schools, and field trips across the city that bring together pre-K and kindergarten students. Transition activities that would typically take place in the summer have been cancelled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to Susannah Levine, Director of Education and Early Learning at BPI, a Chicago-based public interest law and policy center that launched the Pre-K to Kindergarten Transitions Project in 2015. BPI is now discussing transition activities that would seem unusual in more normal times: virtual meetings that allow students to meet their future kindergarten teachers, virtual meetings for pre-K families to talk with kindergarten teachers about what to expect, and online storytimes for pre-K kids led by kindergarten teachers.
While many transition programs are going virtual in response to the pandemic, others are going forward with activities as usual, albeit with some changes to reduce the risk of transmission for students, families, and staff. Georgia’s Summer Transition Program is typically a six-week, full day academic program that serves over 3,000 rising pre-K and kindergarten students in both public school buildings and child care centers in over 50 counties across the state. In light of the coronavirus pandemic the summer program has been reduced to four weeks so previously closed programs have adequate time to reopen, according to Susan Adams, Deputy Commissioner for Pre-K & Instructional Support at the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning.
“We do have measures in place to help minimize the spread and exposure to the virus in our programs and this is based on guidance from the CDC that was developed for child care programs and is appropriate for the summer transition program,” said Adams. The program’s operating guidelines call for a maximum of 20 people in a classroom, temperature checks upon arrival, enhanced sanitation guidelines, and limiting families’ access to the front door of the facility or the child’s classroom. Transition coaches tasked with connecting with families will instead carry out their work through the use of virtual workshops and activities. And the summer transition program could help districts identify challenges that they’ll be facing once school resumes in the fall. “Attendance in the summer program could be a good indication of what we see in August,” said Adams.
While many school districts are cancelling their in-person summer transition activities, there are a variety of creative ways schools can still support students and families as they transition into kindergarten. A few ideas include:
Finally, while transition planning is primarily a local community activity, state agencies have an important role to play, including by emphasizing the special attention needed for this next school year. Early childhood education and K-12 agency staff can and should collaborate on how to best support local communities in meeting the needs of new kindergarteners and their families. Even with tight budgets, state officials can facilitate virtual opportunities for districts to share ideas, strategies, and lessons around teacher collaboration, data sharing, family engagement, and supporting English learners, students with disabilities, students experiencing homelessness, and students from families with low-incomes. State officials can collect and disseminate these ideas widely among districts. And, they can reach out across state lines to learn from their peers since all states are facing similar challenges.
This year it’s especially important to make kindergarten a welcoming and engaging experience for young students and their families. And that must start before they enter a building or hop online and should continue throughout the year.