For youngest students and their teachers, ‘back to normal’ carries big challenges

By: - April 23, 2021 6:30 am
School bus stop sign

Teachers of younger students are facing a new challenge: how to welcome back the students who stayed at home. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Charlene Kurtz has weathered it all since COVID-19 hit – from screens to schedule changes.

A year ago, the Manchester kindergarten and first-grade teacher wasn’t sure how she would teach core concepts to 7-year-olds over a camera and a computer. These days, she feels like she’s mastered it.

“I’ll be honest: Almost all of my parents have my phone number,” she said. “And, I know, that’s not always the best thing to do. But in these times, I really wanted the parents to feel that I’m at their fingertips anytime.”

Phone calls and texts were just the start. In 13 months, New Hampshire educators have rushed from innovation to innovation, adopting and re-adopting methods to best connect to their students. 

Now, with widespread vaccinations in sight and schools returning to five-days-a-week learning, Kurtz and other teachers of younger students are facing a new challenge: how to welcome back the students who stayed at home.

Across the state, there are a lot of them. 

In the 2020-2021 school year, New Hampshire schools saw a 14.8% decline in kindergarten enrollment from the year before, data from the Department of Education shows. New Hampshire schools saw an overall enrollment drop of around 4.2% during the same time period.

In all, 1,578 fewer kindergartners showed up in New Hampshire schools this year than in the previous school year.

Some say the takeaway is clear: In a state where kindergarten is not mandatory, and a year when a pandemic changed up decision-making, many parents opted not to send their kids. 

“I suspect that some when they were considering their options know that if they didn’t go to kindergarten … their kids weren’t truant,” said Dorothy Frazier, assistant superintendent at the Keene School District.

At Kurtz’s school, McDonough Elementary School in Manchester, that pattern has held. About a dozen would-be members of kindergarten – as well as 30 first-graders – did not show up this school year, she estimates. 

Transitioning the ones who are coming back will require careful attention, educators say. 

“I’m predicting that next year’s kindergarten class will be very big,” Kurtz said.

Fluctuating enrollments

Enrollment changes have differed from school to school. Many lost students, Department of Education records indicate, such as Rollinsford Grade School, whose kindergarten enrollment dropped from 32 to 15 in one year; Madison Elementary School dipped from 66 to 15.

But a small number kept their populations steady, or even gained students. 

“We’ve been pretty stable,” said Jennifer Mathieu, principal of Stewartstown Community School, a North Country school. “We have pretty much our entire school here in person.”

For those that did see kindergarten students drop off, administrators like Frazier are working to bridge the gap. 

At Keene Middle School, 74 students the district was expecting to attend this year did not show up to school, with many attending parochial schools or choosing other options, Frazier said. 

The causes varied. Some parents opted to try homeschooling, worried about COVID exposure. Others turned to private schools that still offered in-person learning five days a week, Frazier said.

Of those 74, 18 were expected to show up to kindergarten  – a quarter of the total who stayed home. About 12 of the kindergartners were homeschooled.  

Now, the district is working to figure out who’s going to show up in September – and how many will need to catch up.

“We’re putting a lot of energy into finding out where kids are and meeting them where they are when they return in the fall,” Frazier said. 

That will include reaching out to parents to determine what their children did and didn’t learn, and how they might acclimate socially. The result could be a hearty welcome into the first grade or a recommendation that the child start in kindergarten. 

“It’s not an automatic ‘you go to kindergarten,’ you know, if you didn’t go to school this year,” Frazier said. “It depends what happened when they were homeschooled. It’s just like any age: You kind of figure out where the kid is, and where is the best place for them to be.”

That said, Frazier said the goal was to not have kids repeat a grade. “How fair is that to them?” she said. Instead, the focus will be on integrating them back into in-person school.

For that, school districts are setting up summer programs to get the job done, which Frazier hopes will serve 50 to 60 kids in Keene. 

Also a challenge: Merging the children who continued attending in-person with the kids who stayed home. Teachers are building plans on how to do so from now to August, Frazier said, with many of them leaning on national approaches such as the Responsive Classroom or “developmental designs” to ensure socio-emotional learning. 

But first, there are the check-ins.

“Right now, we don’t have a good handle at all on the handful of the 18 kids that didn’t go to our kindergarten program,” Frazier added. “We’re working on it.”

Approaching normal

In Manchester, Kurtz has figured out how to juggle the in-person and the remote. But it wasn’t always easy.

Back in March 2020, when faced with a statewide closure of school grounds, the 19-year teacher began to worry.

“I was starting to panic because we were doing a lot of things online,” she said. “You know: ‘Do this worksheet online.’ And I was like, oh boy, these are 6-year-olds that still need to form their letters and their numbers and the motor skills.”

So she planned ahead. Over the 2020 spring break, Kurtz returned to school alone, compiling packets and materials to pass to her students. She hand-delivered them to anxious parents. And she set up weekly video check-in calls with the families, even extending them into the summer. 

“I’ve definitely tried every way to communicate with these parents, whether it’s a school app, email, my phone number, because they need that reassurance,” she said. 

Now, as more students prepare to return, the long-term effects of isolation are just coming into view. 

“It’s very hard,” Kurtz said of the transition process for the kids. “Teachers are always boots on the ground for anything that might be not right at home. Physical, mental, you know, not having enough food. So there are a lot of kids that – they’ve been home and we don’t have that watchful eye on them.”

Last fall, Kurtz moved up to the first grade, staying with her kids. Next year, she plans to jump back to kindergarten, with a fresh round of school newcomers. 

And she’s more than ready to return to normal. 

“Bring it on,” she said.

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.