Early childhood educators in the upcoming school year face the steep task of helping students close learning gaps created by the pandemic, a task made more difficult because thousands of their students will have never been in a classroom before — virtually or in person.

In Bexar County and across the country, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten grades experienced the largest decreases in K-12 enrollment in the 2020-21 school year. Between 2019 and October 2020, Texas saw pre-K enrollment drop 22% and kindergarten drop 6%, according to the Texas Education Agency. Texas students are not required to attend pre-K and kindergarten.

Some states saw up to a 40% reduction in enrollment in pre-K and kindergarten, said Cayla Calfee Poore, Teach for America’s managing director of early childhood and elementary education. Students of color dropped out of the early childhood grades at higher rates than their white peers, reflecting the coronavirus pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black, Latino, and indigenous people.

San Antonio did not escape that trend. Sarah Baray, CEO of Pre-K 4 SA, said the city-funded, public pre-K program saw the largest decreases in enrollment among Latino families and English language learners.

“The virus was very different for families that didn’t have access to health care, that had to go to work in order to survive, and they didn’t have the luxury of sending their kids to school where a child might pick up the virus that they’re going to bring home and then the family’s going to be out of work or even worse,” she said.

Kindergarten and first grade teachers also will be tasked with catching up students who attended pre-K or kindergarten virtually all or some of last school year. Many of those students will have similar gaps in the knowledge and skills taught in those early grades, such as sitting in a structured classroom environment, but those gaps will vary within each classroom, said Barbara Triplett, Northside Independent School District’s early childhood education specialist.

“There’s going to be some consistency there in the deficits,” she said. “We feel like if we default back to best practices, which is recognizing that kids come in at varying levels, and plan accordingly, that we’ll be able to not only address the needs of kids that would typically enroll but also those kids that maybe haven’t had those external educational opportunities because of COVID.”

NISD teachers put routines and structures in place for pre-K and kindergarten students, knowing that will be a greater challenge this school year because of the numerous students who were not in a classroom setting at all last year, Triplett said.

Beyond the ABCs

Poore, who taught preschool for eight years, said pre-K and kindergarten students learn much more than how to write their names or recite the alphabet. Children at these ages begin to learn how to be friends with each other, how to share materials and empathize with one another, and how to understand texts. They also learn how to share their own stories, develop fine motor skills that allow them to use scissors and get dressed, and begin building foundational reading and math skills.

“What we know about neuroscience and brain development is that the first eight years of life are incredible opportunities for rapid, life-changing brain development,” she said. “Neuroplasticity is at an all-time high.”

As students returned to classrooms last school year, NISD kindergarten teachers noticed their students' fine motor and literacy skills had diminished, so they enlisted the help of occupational therapists. With their guidance, teachers developed tools that will strengthen the small muscles in students' hands and installed libraries in every elementary classroom, Triplett said.

It’s unclear how long it will take to close gaps for students who missed all or some of pre-K and kindergarten, Barry said, but educators and parents should not panic. The roughly 361 virtual Pre-K 4 SA students still made progress last school year although there was a noticeable difference between them and their peers who attended in person. Pre-K 4 SA limited in-person enrollment to 1,000 students this past school year because of the pandemic; enrollment averaged about 2,000 students in the two years before the 2020-21 school year.

“We have this unique opportunity to help children. We know that young children can learn and grow at very rapid levels if they have access to highly skilled teachers,” Baray said. “The sooner we get children engaged in high-quality activities, the sooner they’re going to have supports that help them build a strong academic foundation.”

Pre-K students play with animal figurines which helps with fine-motor skills while helping children develop socially. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The real challenge is to make sure students have access to those highly skilled teachers and to get students back in classrooms, Baray said. Many families are still concerned about COVID-19 and the variants that are rapidly spreading across the state, and the worry is greater for families with young children who cannot be vaccinated yet.

Baray said early childhood educators must be adept at identifying the varying needs within a classroom and within a child. In one classroom, teachers will have students with stronger literacy or fine motor skills, while others have developed greater mathematical skills. That’s why Pre-K 4 SA classrooms have two teachers, which is not required by the state. Pre-K 4 SA has four locations but also partners with school districts to provide pre-K classes.

“We’re way ahead in San Antonio, in part because of Pre-K 4 SA and in part because our districts long ago embraced the need for high-quality early learning,” she said. “They’re much better equipped than a district where the kindergarten classroom looks like a second or third grade classroom, where kids are made to sit in desks and write and do things that are not developmentally appropriate.”

Strategies for success

Teach for America educators studied the strategies that arose in response to Hurricane Katrina, when most New Orleans students missed an entire year of school. Poore said the main lessons they passed down to their members involved becoming fluent in their school’s grade-level curriculum and scaffolding — or breaking up lessons into chunks and stopping to provide tools or supports that will help students understand each aspect of the lesson.

Baray said teachers also should use informal assessments to help guide instruction. Unlike formal, standardized assessments that only show how effective educators were, informal assessments are designed to guide instruction in the moment so teachers can adapt lessons based on how well students understand. This requires teachers to stop at the end of every lesson and evaluate whether students grasped the skill or concept taught. Teachers then may group students together who did not master the skill and reteach them in some way that still engages the other students.

Somerset Elementary School first grade, bilingual teacher Jacqueline Bentley said she uses informal assessments and observations of students to determine whether students should work together in small groups to practice what they have learned and help each other think critically. Through this type of instruction, she has been able to get bilingual students to read and write in both English and Spanish by the end of first grade.

“We are student-driven,” she said. “Our data provides us with a lot of feedback to make sure that we're touching every student's needs because every student is different and also they learn differently.”

Jacqueline Bentley, first-grade teacher at Somerset ISD.
Jacqueline Bentley, a first-grade teacher at Somerset ISD attends a literacy training with her colleagues on Monday. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Bentley said Somerset ISD emphasizes working with master teachers who provide feedback and input on what best practices will benefit students. They work together across grade levels so students don’t lack the foundation they need for future grades. One of those best practices is scaffolding, which helps students build self-confidence as well as learn. She said she teaches her students that nothing is too difficult to learn and that each lesson takes practice, making sure to “applaud those ‘aha’ moments.”

Keeping families engaged

In San Antonio ISD, first grade teacher Mallorie Sarro is in a unique position to help incoming students who skipped kindergarten because she taught kindergarten for the past four years at Carroll Early Childhood Education Center. She knows what students missed and what students struggled with during virtual learning.

Sarro said she also will rely on informal assessments and small group work to make sure students are learning on grade level. For students who attended kindergarten, she can look at the data provided by their teachers and what interventions they assigned to students who did not perform on grade level. That’s data she will provide to second grade teachers through a system Carroll implemented.

“You know how your kids are coming in and at least have a little insight from the previous teacher,” she said.

Sarro also emphasized the importance of maintaining the family engagement that came to the forefront during last school year, when parents had a front-row seat to their children's learning. As a parent of a 5-year-old daughter going into kindergarten, Sarro frequently checked in with her daughter's pre-K teacher last school year and used downtime to reinforce what she was learning and help build skills she was struggling with, such as rhyming. She would use spare moments in the car on the way home from school to ask her daughter, “What rhymes with block?”

“We’re not there doing flash cards,” she said. “I’m not taking time away from anything else she’s doing.”

Poore said family engagement is particularly important for younger students so they feel supported and welcome at school, as if it were a second home.

“The family is so incredibly important; it’s that child’s first and most important teacher,” she said. “When you can support that relationship as a teacher, you’re supporting the child.”

Some parents may want their children to repeat pre-K or kindergarten because of the disruptions to learning caused by the pandemic. Poore said that is "an intimate, personal question between that child’s family and their school and teachers that they trust" and there is no universal recommendation for holding students back a grade. Under a new law, Texas parents have the right to have their children repeat a grade, but that option is only permanent for pre-K through third grade students. Texas Education Agency guidance states this is an important option for parents of the almost 80,000 students who did not attend pre-K or kindergarten last school year.

If students are not developing quickly enough this school year, Baray said educators need to seek out better learning opportunities, not necessarily more instructional time. She said more hours of “inappropriate instruction” won’t help students close gaps.

“We can teach them very early on to dislike school, and that's one of my fears, that in our quest to help children catch up, we will panic and start doing things that are not supportive of children's development and may cause children to develop this dislike of school,” she said. “School and learning should be joyful, particularly for young children.”

Poore said educators also must take care of themselves, beyond “superficial things like a bubble bath” because catching up students who missed pre-K or kindergarten is going to take years. Teacher wellness impacts the classroom environment and culture, she said.

“This is going to happen over an entire school year and then through the next year. We need to have a continuum of excellent teaching and learning, not just one school year,” she said. “This is a long-term effort rather than a race.”

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.