File photo.

There has been a 20 percent decrease in kindergarten enrollment at SMMUSD this fall compared to enrollment numbers in Oct. 2019, indicating that many parents may be unable or unwilling to support their young child’s distance learning amidst the other challenges of COVID-19.

Prior to the pandemic, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District predicted a 9 percent drop in kindergarten and transitional kindergarten enrollment, due to regional demographic shifts. The actual 20 percent decrease seen this fall is assumed to be in response to distance learning as parents are not legally required to enroll children in TK and K.

There are currently 532 students enrolled in kindergarten compared to 665 in Oct. 2019. 100 students are enrolled in transitional kindergarten, a program for four-year-olds who turn five between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2, compared to 121 last Oct.

The 20 percent decrease in TK and K enrollment, is greater than the 14 percent decrease in LAUSD kindergarten enrollment reported by the L.A. Times in September.

“Our numbers are down and this is true across the state. School is legally required in California starting at age six, so some families may be choosing to wait this year out, or part of the year, and start them when we resume in person learning. This will present a challenge to all schools, if that is the case,” said Gail Pinsker, the Community & Public Relations Officer at SMMUSD.

Engaging four and five year old children online for the duration of a 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. school day presents numerous difficulties for parents and teachers.

Many students need a nanny or parent present to help them run the technology platforms, use school materials, and maintain focus. Children also miss out on aspects of social learning and teachers have to invest more time preparing lessons.

Despite these challenges, District staff are working relentlessly to create an engaging classroom environment and kindergarten teachers are already reporting successful outcomes.

“We are doing lots of social emotional learning, because we are trying to build a community, but amazingly I feel like we are getting there and that’s why I love kindergarteners. Even though it’s all on video we are starting to get to know each other and we are starting to build a classroom community,” said Catherine Handelman, a teacher at Roosevelt Elementary with 27 years of classroom experience.

TK and K teachers begin every morning with 30 minutes of social emotional learning where kids play community building games, discuss their emotions, or complete mindfulness activities.

“Kids at this age are genuinely excited to learn and love going to school, clearly this year is very different for them, but so far they still have been very excited to join and come,” said Grant Clark, a kindergarten teacher at Franklin Elementary.

These teachers are using a range of strategies to engage their students during the 230 minutes of required live instruction. There are lesson presentations, independent work time, and small group breakout sessions so students can receive more personalized instruction. Teachers also use song, dance, and art activities to tap into students’ creativity and get them moving.

“We are engaging the students so that they can focus and be excited to come everyday. My team and I we’ve really been working hard to come up with activities and games and work that they can do that is not only challenging but is also fun,” said Clark.

The amount of support each student needs behind the screen varies significantly, with some students having a parent by their side for the entirety of the school day and others working independently. Clark reports that 50 to 75 percent of his students have an adult sitting with them during class.

This level of at home support is challenging for parents managing full time jobs, and is likely a factor in decreased kindergarten enrollment.

“Focus depends on the kids, some can do it independently some can’t. There is a wide range. Some children need a lot of reminding and support to pay attention to the lesson,” said Handelman. “Attendance varies; there are children that are there the whole time and there are children who don’t always come back after lunch.”

In an effort to maximize student participation, kindergarten teachers invest significant time into preparing each day’s lesson plan. They send school supplies and worksheets home a few weeks in advance and provide parents with weekly learning schedules.

“The planning and the prepping takes twice as long as opposed to when we are in person,” said Handelman. “Online you have to show them everything because they don’t have it right in front of them, so you either have to show a video and link it or you have to take a picture of it and put it in your slide deck. Everything is just more complicated.”