Is Kindergarten Optional This Year?

The 2020 school year will be many 5-year-olds’ first experience with formal education. I’m trying to decide if mine should skip it.

A mom adjusts her daughter's mask as they wait for the school bus.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by LaserLens/iStock/Getty Images Plus, domonite/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

This article is part of Open Book, a Slate series about the new school year.

Long before COVID-19 had settled upon the globe, my daughter began covering her ears whenever I tried to explain something to her. Overexplain, really. She would ask how to spell banana and I would ask her what letter she thought it started with, and her hands would clap up. She’d ask for two crackers for her little sister and three for herself, and I’d ask how many that was altogether. Clap. I didn’t love it—actually, I hated it—but I understood it. I could hear what my daughter was hearing, the tone I had, the one adults use when they’re striving to do more, when they’re trying to teach. Who wants their parents teaching them things all the time, especially when they know everything already?

During the eerie days of late March and early April, when I was still trying to facilitate some of the remote learning provided by my daughter’s teachers, it became clear that doing so without teaching or explaining anything was going to be difficult. She needed professionals, and not professionals doing their very best in her computer, but in-person educators, teaching her far away from me, at which distance, by all reports, she was a delight.

Luckily, she was only in pre-K, a wonderful but also optional year of schooling, from which we more or less eventually opted out. As early spring turned to late spring, she did her school’s dance class and nothing else. Sometimes I would still try to explain vowels, with the expected result, until I stopped doing even that and we reached a state of equilibrium, in which she only covers her ears when I’m explaining feelings.

But that was spring. And now, it’s August. New York City schools start in September, and kindergarten looms. Kindergarten is not just any year. It’s when kids begin to learn how to learn. What they’re soaking up isn’t just their ABCs and it isn’t just how to interact with their peers. It’s how to exist in the school world: how to sit still, how to share, how to take turns, how to be disappointed, how to ask for help, how to navigate new grown-ups, how to navigate new big kids, how to do things for themselves. Some kids have started to learn some of these things in preschool, but kindergarten is the big leagues. It’s the real deal! And these skills are all uniquely difficult to teach remotely, even harder than the academics that are notoriously hard to impart to little kids via Zoom. So I’m trying to figure out: If it felt right to opt out of remote pre-K last year, is kindergarten—the official start of a child’s formal education, their introduction to what school really is—optional too?

If you had talked to me about this in June—before New York City had announced its public school reopening plan—I would have sounded very assured. I’d enroll my daughter no matter what, because I don’t want our school to lose funding. But if school is fully remote, we wouldn’t do it. If there is any IRL component, we would. My 5-year-old had recently started describing everything and everyone as “boring,” while developing an uncanny sense of how to mean-girl—from a safe social distance—children slightly younger than her, who couldn’t fight back and whose prerogatives she did not give a shit about. Forget banana, she needed socialization. So we would send her to whatever in-person schooling there was, and if there was none, better she wild out on the playgrounds of New York City with our child care provider than fight with us about how long she had to sit in front of a computer, so that we could sit in front of computers long enough to do a day’s work.

But then the city announced its plan to open schools for one to three days of in-person education, with the rest remote. Or you could choose full remote. In other words, things got real. I had to face up to the fact that I was totally confused about a question I had thought I had already answered. And so I started to ask around: What should parents do about kindergarten, and only kindergarten, in this hexed year?

In my experience, the more you know about the school conversation taking place right now, the worse you will feel. It’s a huge, messy, fraught matter of—literally!— life and death, equity and racism that has exposed and heightened all of the school system’s preexisting imbalances. There are no good answers, only marginally less bad ones, and no one can even agree on what those are. The achievement gap is an ever-widening gyre, “pod people” now has a whole new and lasting meaning, there is no federal leadership or funds, important distinctions—between regions, age groups—are too complicated to account for, teachers are afraid, parents are desperate, kids are lonely, the economy is a wreck, and the coronavirus is still raging through large swaths of the country. In the context of all of this, whether or not I should send my child to kindergarten when I have a flexible job that I was already doing from home and a nanny to watch my younger child feels like a good problem; in fact, it feels like a trivial one compared to all the families who are going to be forcibly “opted out” of the system by a lack of resources, Wi-Fi, computers, and an adult who can forgo work to monitor it all. Even so, my good problem is one I don’t know how to solve.

In general, the experts I spoke with seemed to think that, while there are repercussions to every decision, sure, I could keep my kid out of kindergarten. “We’re so willing to embrace an 18-year-old’s gap year,” Matthew Dicks, a fifth grade teacher, said to me, “and yet in the midst of a pandemic, in what is probably the least ideal learning circumstance for any kindergarten student for the last 100 years, there is sort of an opposition to the idea that, why not give our kindergartners a gap year?Dicks, who is also one of the teachers queried in Slate’s “Ask a Teacher” column, teaches in Connecticut, where his school will be returning in the fall with a hybrid model—part in-person, part remote. Him telling me that I don’t necessarily have to force my 5-year-old onto a class Zoom against her will with a teacher she’s never met in person felt a bit like getting a Get Out of Jail Free card.

But, as much as I wanted to hear it, no one I spoke to said, “just blow off kindergarten and don’t worry about it!” Over the past 20 years, kindergarten has become more and more academic. The national expectation is that by the end of the year, kindergartners will be reading or at least well on their way to becoming readers. “So what that means is you’re learning all the letters and how to write them and what the letter sounds are,” explained Elysha Dicks, who will be teaching kindergarten in Connecticut in the fall (and is married to Matthew). “You’re learning about the differential in consonant vowels and what sounds they make. You’re learning things about text on a page. The direction the words are in and the letters are in. We teach them how to both make and break apart words. So we teach them how to take letter sounds and make words with them, how to blend those sounds together to read the words, and then how to write them,” and then she went on for quite a while before she started talking about math.

If your child had a good pandemic pre-K or nursery school situation or you’ve just been on-top of their reading and math, they may be well on their way with much of this, but many children—the ones who most need kindergarten—are not. And in many districts, including New York City, if you keep your 5-year-old out of kindergarten, which you can do if you fill out the proper paperwork, you can’t just enroll them when they’re 6. At 6, they have to start first grade, whether they have done kindergarten or not, whether they are behind or not.

The educators I spoke with suggested that bulwarking a 5-year-old’s academics might not be that difficult if—a huge, class-laden “if”—a parent has the bandwidth, but that parents should be aware of the academic expectations and, moreover, should start thinking of remote learning as something that could help with them, and even other skills. Ben Cogswell is a kindergarten teacher in working-class Salinas, California, which will be all remote in the fall, and where 82 percent of his students are second language learners. Cogswell runs a robust resource site for other teachers and parents, full of videos and tutorials, activities and lessons. He’s very comfortable with technology and good at remote learning, and believes his incoming students can get something valuable out of it. He doesn’t see online learning as a full replacement for in-person instruction—“We’re going to have a whole generation of kids that are going to be behind now,” he told me—but he does think we could use it to convey more than academics. How do you talk to somebody online? How do you interrupt them? How do you take turns? We do these things differently over Zoom or Google Classroom than in real life, but they’re still skills worth learning, and Cogswell thinks we can teach them to kids now. “There are social skills that we can engage kids in. They’re not just traditional social skills.”

Even teachers who are less adept at remote learning will be better at it than they were in the spring. “I know parents said it was a waste of time, but I do think they have spent all summer making it better and making it worthwhile,” Elizabeth Gabianelli, who has taught kindergarten for 10 years in Arlington Heights, Illinois, reassured me. She suggests that parents change their perspective. “Like, instead of you [thinking], ‘Oh my gosh, I am bogged down with this remote curriculum,’ [think] here’s a resource for me. That’s what I would tell my kindergarten families last year.”

As her answer may intimate, Gabianelli was picking up on my skepticism about remote learning, which was so pronounced I even tried to get one of my sources to tell me it was totally OK to skip it on the days my child wouldn’t be in school. Reporters are supposed to let the facts come to them, but here I was asking leading questions like, “basically what I want someone to say to me is, ‘totally, you can send your kids in person for two days a week, and you don’t have to do the remote learning part,’ OK?” Dr. Lloyd Fisher, the president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has been strongly in favor of getting kids, especially young ones, back in school, gently refused to do this. “Remote learning definitely doesn’t work for everybody. It really is challenging for little kids,” he said before lowering the but:But going two days and then having remote two days is probably still better than just doing two days in person and not doing anything else. If you talk to teachers, they tell you that even on Monday mornings, there’s sometimes, like, this adjustment period of going back. So if you’re doing two days and then they’re not back for a whole other week, I worry that these kids sort of get out of the routine and take longer to adjust.

It wasn’t just Fisher who took this line. In July, individual New York City public school principals started having Zoom meetings with parents to discuss the coming school year. My daughter’s principal was very clear: Students need to stick to a school schedule on remote learning days. Teachers are going to be taxed enough dealing with kids trying to use their masks as eye patches; they don’t need to also have to start from scratch every fifth day with my 5-year-old.

I found all of this advice about remote learning, if not soothing, reasonable: I needed to get over myself. We should try kindergarten even if it was fully remote and see how it goes. But if talking to people changed my mind a bit about distance learning, it roiled me up about aspects of in-person schooling I hadn’t considered. Matthew Dicks put it this way: The actual implementation of all these safety protocols on a classroom level is kind of like the equivalent of Amazon’s last mile problem, where the school districts are negotiating with teachers unions and dealing with the big safety questions, but they are leaving hundreds of nitty-gritty, mind-bending details to be worked out by individual schools. It’s the principals and teachers who have to figure out how to lead a line of socially distanced students stretching 50 feet down the hall, how to comfort a distraught kid without touching him, how to secure enough school supplies so that no one needs to share, how to have recess with social distance, how to set up a safe classroom that is also conducive to learning and socializing, and on and on. (Something about the recess problem really got to me: If the kids are expected to stay 6 feet apart during recess—as our principal said they would be—how can it be anything other than 20 minutes of some poor beleaguered teacher or aide yelling at a bunch of 5-year-olds not to touch each other? Is that recess?)

Classrooms in particular will be very different from normal: There can’t be any of the soft, colorful play areas typical of a kindergarten room, because kids aren’t supposed to be that close to one another and everything needs to be sterilized.Right now they’re getting rid of the tables and getting desks for everybody,” Elysha Dicks said of her classroom. “And they’re encouraging us to have one bookshelf, and that’s it.” (At my daughter’s school they are keeping the communal tables but planning to have one kid sitting at them at a time.) Districts that can afford it plan to give each student an individual set of manipulables, which they can play with and learn from themselves. Needless to say, this is not all districts.

Kindergarten teachers typically do their jobs in a literally hands-on way, in which touch is a big part not only of instruction—“What happens when a kid needs to learn how to hold a pencil?” Ben Cogswell asked. “How do I do that?”—but also students’ emotional well-being. Before she learned her school would start the year fully remote, Gabianelli told me that she and her peers had spent a lot of time thinking about hugs. “We were talking to our superintendent and we were told, like, if a kid is crying, you can’t put your arms around them,” Gabianelli said. “I don’t like that because I’m a hugger. I’m a high-fiver. I think that’s just the nature of me. And that’s just the nature of kindergarten teachers in general. That’s just not going to be there. It’s not.” Gabianelli also suspects that students in districts with in-person learning will be more distraught than usual this year, as most of them will be coming off six months spent with only their parents or a caregiver and zero practice separating.

Gabianelli said all of this not to convince me to keep my daughter home but rather with the lemonade-out-of-lemons good cheer of, well, an elementary school teacher. “None of it’s great!” she said, her point being that, once you accept that none of this is what anyone wants, you can at least start thinking about what might be least bad. But talking with her, my mind had flashed to my daughter’s first few days of pre-K, when she had been operatically hysterical, yet still shuffled off with her teacher in her adorably oversize, brand-new backpack. Would we have convinced her to go if the teacher couldn’t take her hand? Or if she had first been greeted by a stranger taking her temperature?

The more I learned about in-person school, the more I wondered why I thought it was a good idea to send her into such an uncertain environment, an idea that kept my family tied to a larger uncertainty: whether school would open at all. Even as her school was making plans upon plans upon plans, it was clear everything was contingent, contingent on cases staying down in New York, contingent on the teachers, contingent on working out a million details, contingent on one sick kid, one sick grown-up. Choosing to go fully remote still felt bad to me, but it seemed more and more likely that we’d all end up there anyway, and in the meantime, it did have the virtue of being certain. If I picked that option, at least I’d know for sure what we were doing in the fall.

But somehow, I can’t pick it. If the only option ends up being full remote, we’ll try it. But even after all the tragedy, sustained dysfunction, and dashed hopes of the past six months, I can’t quite let go of the idea it might be possible for my kid to actually like school for this kindergarten year, one that as much as anything is supposed to introduce her to the whole concept of school, to set the tone for her entire educational experience. I know it’s a long shot, and maybe a selfish one, but so long as there’s a chance she can get some in-person teaching, from someone else, in as safe and equitable an environment as possible—heck, just a few days with the teacher she’s going to be watching on the computer all year—I’m willing to keep hoping that it happens, even though it probably won’t. Which is another way of saying, school starts in a month, and I still don’t know what we’re going to do.

For more discussion of schooling during the pandemic, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting.