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Virtual classes test kindergarten teachers

The first year of school is supposed to be a messy, hands-on affair. But it’s not anymore.

Kindergarten teacher Jamie Jones OBrien read a children's book to his students as he conducted a Zoom lesson from his living room in Roslindale.
Kindergarten teacher Jamie Jones OBrien read a children's book to his students as he conducted a Zoom lesson from his living room in Roslindale.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Kindergarten teacher Roxane Scrima used to start every morning with a touch, a simple handshake welcoming some of the tiniest students to class at the John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Somerville.

During the school day, she would sit on the rug with the five- and six-year-old children as they dissected “The Three Little Pigs’’ and she stayed close as they let their imagination run wild with Legos or played together.

Now, though, with Massachusetts schools officially closed for the year due to the coronavirus pandemic, that crucial part of kindergarten has been lost.

“I recognized just how much kids touch you as a person,’’ Scrima said before starting a class on Google Hangout recently. “We sit down on the perimeter of the rug. And now we don’t have that. We have kids sitting [at] a screen.”

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Kindergarten is a unique and messy business, where teachers get on the floor to observe their students and where many children, hands dipped in paint, begin their formal foray into collective learning.

Kindergarten teacher James Jones-O'Brien talked to his students as he conducted a Zoom lesson from his living room.
Kindergarten teacher James Jones-O'Brien talked to his students as he conducted a Zoom lesson from his living room. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

But, in the era of COVID-19, teachers, some juggling their own families, aren’t able to mingle with their students; parents don’t have tools at home to replicate a classroom; and children lose out on critical interactive play that helps with their social and emotional development.

Kindergarten, like preschool, does not require extensive reading or long reports, but it requires a certain togetherness that is gone.

"I miss my friends. I like to play with them. No school for me. No school days anymore,’’ lamented 3-year-old Sydney Zimmermann, as her mother, Jordan, explained the hard adjustment to their new reality since Boston public schools closed March 17.

Jordan Zimmermann and her husband, both architects, work from their East Boston home and take turns caring for Sydney, a prekindergarten student at East Boston Learning Center. Sydney, who is an only child, gets an abundance of learning packets from her teacher, and joins a Zoom class at least once a week.

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But although Jordan Zimmermann is grateful for those efforts, she said it’s impossible to replicate Sydney’s school experience at home. For instance, Sydney loves the learning centers — or stations — in the classroom where students go to work on a task: play shop, build with blocks, or learn math.

“We have blocks in our house,’’ Jordan Zimmermann said recently, “but it’s not as enjoyable for her to play blocks with me, as it is with other kids.”

Being cooped up at home also doesn’t help, and Jordan Zimmermann said she worries about the long-term impact these lost school days will have on Sydney’s social learning.

“Little kids can easily make up the gap in learning,’’ Zimmermann said, “but as far as learning how to be empathetic and how to not hit you when you’re frustrated — I worry about her taking steps back, from a behavioral standpoint.”

Sydney’s teacher, Colleen Mason, said one of her biggest challenges is supporting parents who are not trained teachers and coaching them on how to give school-based instruction at home. Mason, who is working from home while caring for her 20-month-old son, Liam, knows it’s tough.

She has handed out learning packets and has done “read aloud” videos of some favorite children’s stories. In one of her first meetings with the class, Mason pulled up Liam in his high chair, and sat down at her kitchen table before reading "A Fox in the Dark.”

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“Pre-K is all hands on. It’s all play. It’s all teachers being there and getting messy with [the students],’’ said Mason, who works with two aides and 18 students in her classes. “We’re taking notes on what they’re saying. We’re figuring out what they are learning, what they are doing, what vocabulary they are using, and what next steps might be there for them."

The students, their faces popping up on the screen, stayed quiet while she read. But even Mason acknowledged that it had “a totally new weird dynamic.”

Kindergarten teacher James Jones-O'Brien had four students in his class last week when he first started doing Zoom lessons. Attendance improved to nine students by Friday.
Kindergarten teacher James Jones-O'Brien had four students in his class last week when he first started doing Zoom lessons. Attendance improved to nine students by Friday. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Jamie Jones OBrien, a kindergarten teacher at Baldwin Early Learning Pilot Academy in Brighton, sums it up this way: “I used to do some community television. That’s what it feels like.”

Shortly after the closings, he read from a large rhyming book from his own collection called “An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” and recorded himself reading it before sharing it with his class. Usually, he’d read a few lines and pause allowing students to fill in a rhyme, but now he just pauses.

“When you’re reading in front of children, you’re reading the crowd,'' Jones OBrien said. “You’re feeling out if they’re here with you or if they’re not. You’re kind of sensing if they’re gonna get the rhyme or not, and it was hard to pace the reading when you don’t have anyone to bounce that energy off of.”

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Class participation seems to be picking up, though. Four of his 15 students attended the first class, and nine attended the third. (It’s about 90 percent now, he said.) During one of the early classes, the students were asked to show something they had made. One boy who had skipped the prior virtual session quickly made something on the spot, a castle with wheels made of Legos.

Kindergarten teachers said their goal for the rest of the school year is that students maintain much of what they’ve learned while they were in school. Anything more than that, they added, is wishful thinking.

But it’s not clear that the teachers are even reaching some children. At Somerville public schools, daily attendance for remote learning ranges from 40 to 60 percent across the 20 kindergarten classrooms in the district, and it’s lower among low-income students, said Uri Harel, the system’s curriculum coordinator for students in kindergarten through grade 8.

Those numbers would probably be even lower if Somerville had not begun handing out Kindle Fires to some of their youngest students. School officials estimated that 95 of the city’s 400 kindergarten students did not have access to the Internet outside of school.

The state does not track students’ access to technology at home, including the nearly 96,000 kindergarten and pre-K students in the state’s 406 school districts. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is surveying school districts about students’ access to the Internet and devices.

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In Boston, the state’s largest school district, officials don’t track the number of children participating in virtual learning, but they’ve seen uneven usage of online learning materials. Only 29 percent of the city’s kindergarten students have logged on to Google Classroom — a portal where teachers provide assignments to children — at least once during the school closure. And 64 percent have logged on to Clever, another online portal where teachers create digital classrooms, at least once during that same period, officials said.

Stephanie Crawford, who teaches 22 kindergarteners at Josiah Quincy School in Chinatown while also caring for her 13-month-old son, said her class was learning about construction — from building objects to creating music — when schools closed. The class community that they worked so hard to build all year was completely disrupted.

Soon they rebuilt it, though it was not the same, she said. She set up a Google Classroom where she uploads information, but students and their parents have to do the tasks on their own.

“We went from telling them what they need to do, being in front of them ... giving them a chance to do it, to just saying, ‘Here you go. Try your best,’ ” she said.



Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.