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Preparing for kindergarten during COVID-19
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Preparing for kindergarten during COVID-19

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Soon-to-be kindergartners at Sechrist Elementary visited a nearly empty school this week by appointment to show off their knowledge prior to the start of an academic year already reshaped by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“On a normal year, we usually try to do a pizza meet-and-greet ahead of time so we get to know the kids, so they are more comfortable. Normally that would have happened and we would have held it out here,” said teacher Linda Salazar Tuesday as she worked in the Sechrist courtyard with incoming student Lucy Lalan, who whizzed through identifications of colors, shapes, letters and numbers as part of the Kindergarten Development Assessment, an annual test to gauge the starting point of each new student.

Salazar and Lucy sat on opposite sides of a table during the test, both in masks — Lucy’s a colorful combination of rainbows and doughnuts and Salazar’s reading, “teach, love, inspire.”

“It’s great to be able to interact with the kids again, it’s great still seeing the excitement that school’s starting and they’re starting kindergarten. That’s still all there,” Salazar said. “But it’s difficult because, as a kindergarten teacher, you’re used to being with the kids, next to the kids, helping them along the way. … When they come back to school, it’s going to be an adjustment for the year. It’s not natural for them, it’s not natural for us.”

In-person classes for Flagstaff Unified School District’s 2020-21 school year have been delayed until at least Oct. 9. Teachers returned to reorganize their classrooms this summer after an abrupt closure in March as COVID-19 cases surged statewide.

“It was like stepping back in time to when we left at spring break. It felt like this huge hole. I think all of us sort of felt a loss with not being able to close out the year like we normally would with the kids,” Salazar said, noting how challenging the loss of in-person classes was for last year’s kindergartners. “That, in some respects, was harder than starting this way and then transitioning [to in-person] hopefully later.”

Now that they’ve had more time to prepare for virtual learning, which starts Aug. 17 at FUSD schools, the kindergarten teachers at Sechrist said their goal is to mimic the regular school day online, while also keeping screen time to a minimum for these young students.

Class will begin and end at the same times as a regular school day, with full-class video conferences to bookend the day. Salazar said families will still receive paper activity packets to supplement the online lessons and break up time students spend on their district-issued iPads. Core subjects as well as specials, recess and snack time will all be built into the daily schedule.

“We just want to make it as easy for parents but as fun for kids,” Salazar said.

Stefani Whitcomb said she has been supplementing the training she and other teachers have received in preparation for holding school remotely during the pandemic.

“I’ve watched many hours of YouTube to problem solve and see what is the best way to do this for 5-year-olds,” Whitcomb said of the new programs being provided through student iPads.

Whitcomb expressed a concern for a lack of social-emotional learning opportunities for her students while school happens virtually. As a first step to address this, she is making activity kits to send home with families.

“It’s a lot different,” Whitcomb said of preparing for the 2020-21 school year. “I have 10 years’ experience, but I’m starting to feel like a first-year teacher because it’s so different.”

New kindergarten students, however, don’t quite know what they’re missing.

Kelly Lalan said her daughter is really looking forward to school being online for at least the first few weeks of the year.

“I told her this school year was the first one ever to do [online class] and she was like, 'Really?'" Lalan said, imitating Lucy’s astonished tone.

Ashley Lee and her daughter Emmalynn were similarly enthused for the start of school after visiting Sechrist Tuesday for the development test. Emmalynn proudly admitted she had already read through one of the books she got for the year.

“I’m open about it,” Lee said about her daughter starting her elementary education remotely. “With the great teachers and parents, I think it’s going to be a great year.”

Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253.

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