Credit: Jessica Christian/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris
First-grade students put their arms out to ensure distancing during Freedom School, a summer academic enrichment program for Marin County students held at Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy in Marin City.

Rarely has the prospect of going back to school generated so much glee in the hearts of young children. Now, as many California children in the early grades have started to venture back into the classroom after a long year of lockdowns and distance learning, teachers say they are seeing much rejoicing, as well as some anxiety, on campus.

For many children in K-2, remote learning has been fraught with challenges, educators say. Some youngsters struggle to engage online. Many small children resist sitting still for hours. Technical snafus often require constant parental input.

“Young children don’t learn particularly well from screens. Social-emotional learning is vital with young children, and it needs to be in person, face to face, masks and all,” said Brad Zacuto, the head of school at Westside Neighborhood School in Los Angeles, which brought students back to school last fall. “The laughter, the joy you hear and see throughout the school day is evidence of this.”

Many schools are now taking baby steps toward reopening, bringing the early grades back into the classroom, often as part of a hybrid model, combining in-person instruction with distance learning. Many educators have been surprised by how patient these young children, an age group not generally known for their ability to wait, have been with adhering to the health and safety guidelines. Parents are usually given a choice to return their child to in-person learning, or keep them in online learning at home.

“Believe me things aren’t perfect,” said Zacuto. “We take time to wash hands, we take time to spread out the lines, and you have to play only in the designated areas. But they don’t care. They are so happy to be at school, being taught by a beloved teacher standing in front of them.”

To make safety protocols seem less intimidating, some teachers pretend the children must wear masks because they are superheroes. Others squeeze a lot of extra games and stuffed animals into the day to keep the mood safe and nurturing. Many educators have been impressed at how flexible and resilient the children have been after a year of tumult.

“The kids did not exhibit fear,” said Darcie Wolfe, who has taught 1st grade for 15 years at Westside. “We had worked hard to begin building a community online, so when they came together in person, there was a lot of joy at being in the same space. The kids needed to be heard. We needed to make more room for discussion, reactions and problem-solving.”

Many teachers have been struck by the willingness of usually rough-and-tumble 6-year-olds to follow hygiene rules to the letter.

“The kids have been amazing. It’s like they haven’t missed a beat. To see all the smiles and joy is awesome. They are loving being back in school,” said Janet Amato, who teaches 1st grade at Laurel Elementary in San Mateo, where students returned just a few weeks ago. “So far, we’ve had no issues with mask wearing or keeping their distance from one another. I think they would do almost anything to be back and have some normalcy.”

Certainly, many challenges lie ahead. Flexibility will be key when assessing student progress, experts say, because the pandemic has created unprecedented challenges. The usual benchmarks may not apply.

“Teachers should be prepared for variation in skill levels much greater than they are used to,” said Deborah Stipek, an expert in early childhood at Stanford University. “They will need to assess where children are when they come back and adjust their instruction to be appropriate for wherever they happen to be in their learning trajectories.”

Learning gaps may be unavoidable, teachers say, but they are determined to get their students back on track. A recent Stanford study, for instance, found that reading fluency in 2nd grade is now about 30% behind what might be expected in a typical school year.

“I’m finding that I need to break lessons down into very small chunks,” said Wolfe. “We are not able to get through as much of the standard curriculum as we have in years past. We have needed to reevaluate our curriculum and focus on the skills that we feel are most important in order to give opportunities for students to master each level before moving on.”

One of the biggest challenges, teachers say, has been weaning students from the parental help to which they have become accustomed.

“A difficult part is helping students build independence again after being home with parents who, understandably, supported them in all aspects of their learning,” said Wolfe. “We needed to allow much more time for students to get out their learning materials, and when done, prompt students to return materials to the expected place, so the materials could be accessed again next time.”

One iconic lesson from the days of yore is off the table at this point. Sharing school supplies, once considered an essential skill in the early grades, is now forbidden. Everyone has their own materials and “keeps it in their own bubble,” said Kyla Santana, an occupational therapist in Pleasanton Unified, where students recently returned to school.

For some children, going back to campus will be a rocky transition rife with anxiety and emotion, experts say, while others will take it in stride.

“Some kids take more time to adjust,” said Santana. “Some go through a honeymoon period where they’re super well-behaved until they settle in. Others are emotional, and they melt down a lot getting used to the change. Others just need to adapt to a new routine and expectations different than at home. They are all different.”

Some teachers warn that families yearning to get back to normal may be disappointed in the reality. Many working parents find that dropping their child off only to pick them up again after a few hours is a logistical nightmare. Many of the casual social interactions that children once took for granted will be curtailed.

“I don’t think students fully understand that what they are returning to is not the school they left,” said Paula Merrigan, a transitional kindergarten teacher in Castro Valley Unified. “It will be harder on our youngest learners because they love to give their teachers hugs. We can’t comfort them like we’re used to when they’re sad or feeling stressed, so it will be hard on teachers too.”

Now more than ever, experts say, the social and emotional welfare of the children should be at the core of the curriculum. Some teachers now start the day by asking students to give themselves a thumbs up, down or sideways depending on how they are feeling, to express their pent-up emotions about the pandemic.

Creating a sense of camaraderie may be the most important lesson of all, experts say. Children may need to be retrained on how to socialize before they can be ready to learn.

“I think K-2 teachers should expect kids happy to be back and a bit rambunctious,” said Stipek. “I would recommend beginning with lots of games and activities to establish a community and a sense of belonging and ease into academics as kids get used to being back in the classroom.”

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