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For Kindergarteners, First Day Of School Won't Be What They (Or Their Parents) Dreamed About

Maya Ramos and Kaia Cagasan and their older brothers snack on cookies at Kaia's San Carlos home, Aug. 14, 2020.
Claire Trageser
Maya Ramos and Kaia Cagasan and their older brothers snack on cookies at Kaia's San Carlos home, Aug. 14, 2020.
Parents and teachers are staring down the challenge of introducing kids to school for the very first time without actually having them in a physical classroom. Some will have it a lot easier than others.

Maya Ramos and Kaia Cagasan spent a recent Friday morning throwing water balloons at their older brothers, swimming in Kaya's pool, relaxing in the hot tub, and then climbing out to eat fruit and cookies outside.

This is where the new kindergarteners at San Diego Unified’s Benchley/Weinberger Elementary in the San Carlos neighborhood will have their virtual classes. Their moms, Nicole Ramos and Shaffana Cagasan, formed a learning pod together and hired a private tutor for three days a week, at $2,500 a month, to help them follow their online lessons.

Shaffana Cagasan said in some ways this will be better than if the kids were in normal kindergarten.

"I feel like this is an opportunity to really see what we can do, reimagine how we bring education to kids, and I'm actually kind of excited."

Dannia Hernandez's daughter Jasmine appears at her preschool graduation in this undated photo.
Dannia Hernandez
Dannia Hernandez's daughter Jasmine appears at her preschool graduation in this undated photo.

A few miles away, in North Park, Dannia Hernandez is facing a far different reality.

"The unknown, the unknown, to not know what's going to happen," she said, emotional to the point of crying about the stress of the situation.

She works full time and her daughter Jasmine will start kindergarten at Jefferson Elementary in North Park. Hernandez's plan is for her mother to stay with Jasmine and help her do her online lessons, but she's worried.

"It's not the same as a professional who can be there and give her the one on one," she said. "And even if the computer just goes into sleep mode, she won't know what to do. It's going to cause frustration and stress."

For Kindergarteners, First Day Of School Won't Be What They (Or Their Parents) Dreamed About

Ramos, whose kids will be in the pod with the private tutor, said she's keenly aware of the inequity the pandemic is creating.

"So I think the big challenge that we have is what role do we play in sort of helping solve inequities as people who have resources?" she said.

Ramos said they'd be open to bringing another family into the pod who can't afford to pay, but say it's been a challenge finding other families outside their neighborhood.

RELATED: San Diego Teachers, Parents, Students Brace For More Remote Learning

Regardless of their status, kindergarteners and their families will arguably be impacted more than any other grade by online learning this fall. The five- and six-year-olds have little to no experience in a regular school environment, let alone in a virtual space with the distractions of home.

What's more, everyone involved said it will be very difficult for these young children to do their lessons and activities without the help of an adult. This means kids whose parents can afford to stay home or hire help for them are starting off their schooling with a distinct advantage over their peers who don't have these luxuries.

It won’t be easy for the teachers either.

Jana Wilson, who has taught kindergarten for most of her 21-year-career in La Mesa, is planning a daily schedule with a live video call from 8 to 9 a.m. where she'll go over the calendar, read a story and talk about the letter of the day.

"At the beginning, it's probably very ambitious of me to be thinking we're going to be online for an hour, but if we break it up with fun songs and activities, get up and stretch, hopefully, it will work," Wilson said. "Their attention span in the classroom would also be 5 to 10 minutes, so we would be breaking it up anyway."

Then she will give an hour of independent work time where kids can complete packets she'll send home with letters to trace and crafts that relate to the letter—for example, cutting out and coloring and gluing an alligator for the letter A. Then from 10 to 10:30 a.m., she'll lead another group activity online. She's also planning to pre-record math and other lessons for parents to show their kids.

"I might be really optimistic and a little naive thinking about how challenging this will be, but that's part of kindergarten, you never know what comes in through the door, never know kids will be," Wilson said. "Kindergarten teachers are a special breed that always anticipate the crazy and the unknown."

Still, Wilson acknowledges that parents or another adult will have to be with the kindergarteners to help them with the crafts and activities, at least for the first six weeks.

But, of course, that’s easier for some than others.

Hernandez said she has not received any schedule from the school, so she can't plan around when online lessons might be.

"If they do it an hour long every day, I can maybe change my work schedule so I can maybe help her," she said. "But if they do an hour, take a break, come back, I can't do that."

Homayra Yusufi's daughter Fatima attends a kindergarten zoom class in this undated photo.
Homayra Yusufi
Homayra Yusufi's daughter Fatima attends a kindergarten zoom class in this undated photo.

School started last week in the San Marcos Unified School District. And after just a few days of virtual kindergarten, Homayra Yusufi is ready to pull her daughter, Fatima, out of school entirely.

"She was so excited about starting school, about being a big girl, and we'd made it a big deal," Yusufi said. "When they transferred to Zoom, I said, 'OK, she's a go with the flow kid, we can address any challenges, but it's been really bad."

In the first few days, Fatima has logged on to Zoom with 20 classmates for two hours, but it's been a frustrating experience for her.

RELATED: We Want To Hear About Your Experience With Distance Learning

"We couldn't hear [the teacher], the kids are talking on top of each other, one kid didn't have a parent in the room, and he kept going, 'here's my dinosaur, I want to tell you about my sister,' and the teacher didn't know how to mute him," Yusufi said. "My daughter had meltdowns."

The family has someone taking care of Fatima and her younger sister, and the original plan was for her to help Fatima during the Zoom lessons while Yusufi worked.

"But it's been so emotional," Yusufi said, so she's been sitting with her daughter instead.

"I'm going to give another week or two, and then I might transfer her to a full homeschool program, so then we can do it after work or on weekends," she said. "This is supposed to be her whole introduction to school in kindergarten, and I don't want her to have long term anxiety about school."

Yusufi said she is also toying with the idea of having her daughter skip kindergarten, since that year is optional in California, and starting first grade next year as a six-year-old.

If Yusufi makes this decision, she wouldn’t be alone.

Syed and Sanaa Abedin's son Haris was finishing preschool at Magic Hours Preschool in Mira Mesa and had planned to send him to kindergarten in San Diego Unified this fall. But they’ve decided to keep Haris at Magic Hours because it added a kindergarten class.

"It was a no brainer for us," Syed Abedin said. "They have very small classes, we've been sending our son to preschool there for three years now, we trust them, know they maintain good care and cleanliness, so we felt comfortable."

Of course, the Abedins were looking forward to eliminating the cost of preschool this year—$310 a week at Magic Hours--but decided it was worth it to pay for another year.

"A big part of school is learning interaction with friends, to understand how to deal with different issues, that was a huge learning process to go through," Abedin said. "If they're lacking social interaction, they will miss out on a huge part of kindergarten, and they will be at a disadvantage."

However, there could be unintended consequences. If a large number of parents decide not to enroll their kindergarteners in public schools, it would cause an enrollment dip and a corresponding drop in state funding to districts. Maureen Magee, a San Diego Unified spokeswoman, said the district won't have final enrollment numbers until October.

For Kindergarteners, First Day Of School Won’t Be What They (Or Their Parents) Dreamed About
Listen to this story by Claire Trageser.

Corrected:
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Fatima Yusufi has a younger brother. She has a younger sister. The story has been updated.