With the Delta variant of COVID-19 on the rise, school districts may have no choice but to opt for remote learning once again. For now, my Utah district is for the most part back in person, offering a cohort of online learning for families if they choose. The mayor of Salt Lake City, where I live, recently imposed a mask mandate for K-12 schools, but I worry that it is only a matter of time before we are back to learning remotely. Not enough people are getting vaccinated, and children under 12 who don’t have that option are increasingly growing more vulnerable as school resumes. Yet, if I have learned one thing during this ongoing pandemic, it is the value of community and connection with those we love, even if it’s online.
Throughout the 2020-21 school year, my school district was among the many around the country forced to move school online. We didn’t reintroduce the option for in-person learning until January, with classrooms then a mix of fully in-person, hybrid, and completely remote.
When I tell non-educators that I taught kindergarten for nearly a year on Zoom—I returned to in-person teaching in March of 2021—they often look bewildered. And when I tell them my students accomplished an incredible amount of learning and that my virtual classroom was full of joy and connection, that bewilderment turns into incredulity. It’s hard to believe, as someone looking in from the outside, that 5- and 6-year-olds may have had a more successful 2020 than many adults.
My kindergarten-turned-1st grade students are incredibly technologically literate, capable of navigating multiple apps, multistep directions online, and complex technological vocabulary. Before being forced into online learning, I would have assumed those skills were too complex for 5- and 6-year-olds to grasp. I suppose that is a silver lining of this past year.
For many of us, it took a pandemic to make us reflect upon what is truly important. We know engagement in the classroom is key, and I was just about putting on a one-woman show each day in front of my computer, trying to hold the attention of my students while competing with the many distractions in their homes.
My days were spent alone in my empty classroom with desks pushed into the back corner, but in my virtual classroom, Fridays were “name change day” where I would allow my students to change their name on Zoom. Popular aliases included “Diamond Queen,” “Rainbow Sparkle,” “Iron Man,” and “Roblox,” among others. Taking a break from constant academics to share in these moments of silliness and joy is a memory from this past year I will always cherish.
Discipline looked a lot different, too. On Zoom, teachers can’t send a student out into the hall if they’re disruptive; there’s a mute button for that. But rather than simply defaulting to that mute button, I learned to choose my battles. Teacher-student relationships can be damaged when we nitpick minor annoyances that truly don’t matter in the long run and handle them with punitive consequences.
Kindness and respect should serve as guiding principles for how each member of a classroom community treats one another as we move forward into this next school year. If educators begin to see students’ “misbehavior” as a reaction to living through crisis, we can collectively begin to redefine what it means when a student misbehaves. Instead of taking it so personally, we can help students navigate big emotions that may stem from living through this collective trauma.
We know as educators that if a relationship is harmed, it must be repaired. And this goes both ways—children know intuitively if an adult is treating them with disdain. I prefer practices like restorative circles that teach conflict resolution and promote restoring relationships after harm over punitive practices, both during remote and in-person learning. For my students last year, this often meant pulling a student into a Zoom breakout room to have a private conversation that ended in a game of rock, paper, scissors.
I was surprised to find that this past year was the most connected I have felt to families.
The line between school and home has been blurred for many students learning remotely. I was surprised to find that this past year was the most connected I have felt to families. I will miss the experience of some families being within earshot of the classroom each day, which made it easy to check in right in the moment.
This past spring, we were able to hold an in-person kindergarten promotion event for families of both remote and in-person learners. I recall hearing family members recognize other children they had seen in their child’s Zoom. “There’s Katie who had the pet chicken! I remember Caleb—he loves Minecraft!” Both students and families were able to connect during this reunion-like event.
The 2020-21 school year was probably the hardest year of teaching even for many veteran teachers, but we must remember that our students came away with new skills. They don’t need lessons on grit or resilience because they already have it. We need to continue to create spaces of inclusion and empathy to foster love, hope, and connection for students moving forward into this next school year, regardless of whether they are online or in person.
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2021 edition of Education Week as Yes, Kindergartners Can Thrive on Zoom