Challenges in Returning to School Are Real, But Not Insurmountable

New Transition Toolkit Highlights Steps States and Districts Can Take to Address Challenges
Blog Post
July 26, 2021

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlights the difficulties inherent in remote kindergarten and points out challenges facing schools as most children prepare to return to in-person learning this fall. While kindergarten is typically viewed as the formal entry into K-12 education, many children slated to attend kindergarten in the 2020-21 school year experienced a very different kind of kindergarten year, one in which hands-on learning with peers was replaced by laptops and video sessions. The article points out that such an unusual experience could have long-term consequences for young children since it’s in kindergarten that students typically learn important social skills, such as taking turns and cooperating with peers.

Such an unusual kindergarten year poses difficulties not just for the students themselves, but also for states and districts as they prepare to welcome students back to fully in-person learning. Some experts are predicting a surge of kindergarten students this school year as parents who decided to delay the start of school due to the pandemic are now enrolling their children. For children who either skipped their kindergarten year entirely (kindergarten experienced major enrollment declines in many states) or only attended via a computer, the first day of first grade may be the first time they’ve ever physically stepped inside a classroom.

And school leaders have a variety of other challenges to deal with as well. A large number of children of all ages will begin school this fall having experienced trauma over the past year, putting additional strain on an already burdened school mental health network. Many of the seven million children in this country who receive special education services have not received regular services since school shut their doors in the spring of 2020. And there continues to be hesitation from some families and educators over the prospect of fully returning to in-person schooling, a hesitation that might become more common if COVID-19 cases continue to climb in parts of the country.

But school and district education officials aren’t powerless as they seek to address this multitude of challenges. In a new toolkit created by New America and EducationCounsel, we outline concrete steps that can be taken to ensure effective and supportive transitions for children, families, and educators in Fall 2021 and beyond. The toolkit views transition in two ways: (1) children’s transition from a home or community-based early childhood setting to the public school setting of pre-K, kindergarten, or the early elementary grades; and (2) children’s transition into a post-COVID learning environment both in Fall 2021 and the years that follow. It also takes both a short-term and long-term view of strengthening transition. There are immediate steps needed to strengthen children’s transition this year and beyond. But this period of crisis and uncertainty also presents a moment to reimagine children’s pre-K, kindergarten, and early grade experiences while laying the foundation for improved, integrated systems across early education and K-12 education.

The toolkit highlights a number of likely scenarios that schools and districts should consider and plan for over the next year, such as a possible influx of kindergartners, an increased number of children experiencing trauma, and family hesitancy to return to in-person learning. Each of these scenarios will require additional supports for teachers and other staff with whom children interact. The toolkit outlines these challenges and then proposes potential state and local solutions to address them along with funding streams that can help pay for the solutions.

For states and districts who are unsure how to get started with the important work of strengthening transitions, the toolkit details six steps for establishing effective and supportive transition policy at the state and local level. The very first step involves taking stock of current transition policies and practices via use of a self-assessment tool, such as New York’s transition effectiveness assessment tool. Results of the transition self-assessment can provide an overview of current efforts as well as areas where more focused work is needed.

The toolkit also provides a guiding framework for state and local leaders to implement in order to create an effective system of transition that will meet the needs of students in the upcoming school year and beyond. Under topics such as “Promoting Equity,” “Understanding Funding and Enrollment Needs,” and “Using Data to Drive Decision-Making,” we list questions for education leaders to answer to ensure they’re doing everything possible to facilitate a supportive return to school in the fall and beyond.

There is no doubt that the challenges listed here and in the recent Wall Street Journal article are very real, but they’re not insurmountable. In fact, states, districts, communities, and schools can overcome these challenges through the kind of careful planning and partnership outlined in the toolkit. We owe it to children and their families to do the work necessary to understand their needs for this school year, meet those needs, and make their school experience supportive and successful.

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