As another unique school year gets underway, in-person this time but still with masking requirements, a generation that has spent a large portion of its early developmental life in the isolation and stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic will enter its first year of formal education.

We asked the three Stowe Elementary kindergarten teachers: Are they ready for them?

“We are so excited to welcome kindergarteners, and all of the children back at Stowe Elementary School, five days a week, full time,” Beth Bradford said. “What a change from last year, when we were working on how to bring children back safely with our hybrid model. We’re just thrilled about it. We know that we will be required to wear masks in school and in the classroom, but that’s OK. Because just being back and knowing that we’re providing a safe place for students to come is the most important thing. And we do have time to go outside, and when we’re outside, we’ll be able to take the masks off, so that’ll be great.”

What about the masks? Did teachers have a tough time or endlessly have to nag kids about keeping them on, as some parents have feared?

“I was so pleasantly surprised last year with kindergarteners wearing their masks, I think they might have been better about it than I was,” Katie Johnson said. “In fact, sometimes they’d be like, ‘Your mask is falling!’ And I would obviously fix it. But they were really respectful and thoughtful with their masks. All these things I had sort of anticipated happening never happened. The mask was not a slingshot. It was worn on the face the right way.”

What about the kids who were unable to attend preschool since March 2020? Would it be a struggle for them to start kindergarten as possibly the first group learning experience they had ever had?

“Every year, there are always a handful of students that do not participate in a preschool experience for a variety of reasons,” Johnson said. “I think that the number since the pandemic has increased. Fortunately, we do know ahead of time who those children are and whether a child has attended pre-K or not. We’re ready to take them from wherever they are as a student and move them forward, whether it’s their academics or their social emotional learning.”

How did the teachers keep kindergartners engaged last year? Are any of those strategies carrying over to this year?

“Ultimately, what we’ve found to be most effective was sending home creative activities that got them out in the community, whether it was a scavenger hunt or a nature walk. Things that they could do that were engaging beyond just being on a screen,” Johnson said.

“I will say that teaching students remotely did give the opportunity for parents and schools to really come together and work as a team in education, which was one of the highlights,” Lauren Trautman said. “Just those really close connections that you built with families as you came into their home on your screen. I think that that is something we want to continue and strive for creating those connections every year.”

Trautman added: “One of the pushes last year was to take things outside as much as possible. That’s something that we’re definitely going to focus on providing more outdoor learning variances for our kindergarten class. We want to make sure we’re offering rich, engaging connections to the learning that’s happening inside the classroom and bring it outdoors where we can really be really creative with what we offer them and do it in a really safe place where we can spread out and have a lot of kindergarten moving and active learning.”

The pandemic has been stressful and scary, for adults and children alike. Are the teachers ready to deal with the emotional fallout?

“We always like to think that we are responding to children’s emotional needs, regardless of what’s going on in the world outside of them,” Bradford said. “As kindergarten teachers, and all teachers at Stowe Elementary School, we’re ready to support the kids and offer them all the positive, supportive interactions so that we can work with them on their social development.”

Bradford also noted the school had used federal coronavirus aid money through the Education and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund to bring in two paraeducators to ensure that all the kindergartners are having their individual needs met.

But again, what about the masks? Five-year-olds are really going to wear them throughout the school day?

“I was delighted to hear that the guidance does say that if, for instructional purposes, you need to remove the mask for a short period, you can,” Bradford said. “For example, if we’re teaching the letter “T” and we’re trying to get the kids to make the letter “T” sound and they’re having difficulty, it’s OK for me to step back and pull down my mask and model for them how to make the sound for “T.” They can pull down their masks so that we can help them make the correctly.”

“It really gave us an opportunity — in the social-emotional work that we do, talking about body language, and how to read their peers’ language and really understand it,” Trautman said. “When you take away a large portion of the face, that really helps them focus on the eyes and on what the rest of the body is doing. Kids are so resilient and flexible in their learning. I think as adults, we sometimes are not as flexible. When we don’t see the mask as something inhibiting them, they are going to learn as long as we give them the opportunities.”

“We do firmly believe in mask breaks, too,” Bradford said. “So, if a child really needs a mask break, we’re going to make sure they have an opportunity to take a mask break. We can always dip outside for a bit, if that’s what we need. And often that is what you need to do.”

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