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Parents Worry About Kids Starting Kindergarten Amid Virus Disruption

For the class of 2020, the coronavirus redefined the end of their education. For the class of 2033 – next year’s kindergarteners – it’s likely to shape the beginning in ways that have parents worried. 

Chavon Carroll was preparing to move to a new home in north Charlotte – one her family picked for good public schools – when the virus shuttered school buildings.

She’d been planning to take her son to Croft Community School to enroll him in kindergarten. Instead, she’s working through how to scan his birth certificate and enroll him online.

Credit Courtesy of Chavon Carroll
Charles "CJ" Carroll will start kindergarten in CMS in August.

"I have never even seen the school that he’s going to be going to in the fall," Carroll said during a recent interview. "Oh my goodness. I just thought about that."

After interviewing a dozen parents of rising kindergarteners – families opting for neighborhood, magnet, charter and private schools – one thing unites them: They’re worried, wary and sometimes reconsidering their plans.

"I’m just really nervous about what the fall will look like – if school will still be in session, if it’s going to be virtual," Carroll said.

Kindergarten sets the tone for a child’s education. It’s a time of hugging teachers and sitting on carpets singing songs with classmates. Sending a child off to kindergarten is a milestone for parents, too.

Carroll says she gets teary-eyed when she remembers walking her daughter to her kindergarten class, then imagines having to drop off her son and drive away.

"I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see his teacher, like, in person, because they’ll probably be limiting interactions, and trying to limit as much outside folks," Carroll mused. "Will his teachers be wearing masks? Will that be scary?"

Uncertainty For Schools

The mid-March shutdown fell just as kindergarten open houses, beginner days and registration events were gearing up.

"Schools were not able to have their full registrations, where the students come in and they celebrate them and there’s balloons, and they get to assess them and take them on tours and the teachers get to welcome them," said Jonathan Ribbeck, executive director of elementary schools for Iredell-Statesville Schools. He says some schools are below expected enrollment for this time of year, while others are on track.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools says overall enrollment is down, but officials expect to catch up this summer.

Most magnet, charter and private schools finished their admission process before the coronavirus disruption. But the prospect of drastic change – such as altered schedules, increased reliance on remote learning and new physical distancing – has some families thinking twice.

Worth The Price?

Natalie Centeno and her husband went through the interviews and paid a deposit for private school for their 5-year-old daughter. Now they’re rethinking the pricetag.

"We would need the after-school care as well, so for us it would be nearly $30,000," she says. 

Centeno says she’s not sure what next year will look like, but she worries it will mean her daughter spends less time in school. She and her husband both work full-time, but that kind of tuition strains their budget, she says.

"What if we have to pay $30,000 and we only have child care three days a week, or five days for half a day, and we’re somehow going to have to supplement that?" she says.

Charlotte Latin School, Charlotte Country Day and Providence Day School -- three of Charlotte's most prestigious and costly private schools -- all report strong enrollment for 2020-21.

"Our spring inquiries have actually increased even though we are fully enrolled for the 2020-2021 school year," says Susan Carpenter of Charlotte Latin.

Home-Schooling In Spanish?

Lee LaBorde and her husband visited six schools before choosing Charlotte East Language Academy, a K-8 magnet school, for son Charles McBroom, who’s about to start kindergarten. Classes are taught in Spanish, and they’re eager to see him grow up bilingual.

Credit Courtesy of Lee LaBorde
Charles McBroom's preschool closed shortly after the kids posed for picture day in caps and gowns.

But LaBorde now wonders how that will play out if her son has to spend part of the year learning from home.

North Carolina education officials say remote learning is going to play a bigger role next year, though it’s not clear how. A second wave of COVID-19 could force schools to close again. Or students could end up attending on alternating days to allow for safe distancing.

"I’m not sure that I have the skills to teach him in Spanish as somebody who is a nonspeaker," she says. "If it doesn’t work out we might have to go with a different schooling option for this first year."

What To Say to Kids

Jenn Aja and Lauren Zubow are both sending kids to kindergarten at Myers Park Traditional Elementary.

Aja says her son has met the teachers electronically at a virtual beginner’s day. And he’s done some online work with his preschool, which also closed in March. But Aja worries.

"His attention span and his patience for sitting and staring at a screen isn’t terribly long, so that’s definitely been a challenge," she says. "And I am apprehensive about how that would go in the fall."

Aja says she’d been trying to prepare her son for kindergarten, but "that conversation kind of came to a screeching halt in March." With no idea what August will be like, she decided it might be unwise to keep talking up things like  “Oh, it’s going to be so exciting when you ride the bus and you go to school and you go to the cafeteria!” 

Riding the bus is a huge unknown. So far no one has released a strategy for getting children to school without packing them into bench seats. And school cafeterias pose virus-spreading challenges as well.

Zubow says she's facing similar struggles with her son.

"Normally I would be like really pumping him up about kindergarten, like 'This is what’s going to happen and this is where you’re going to go,' " she says. "And now I’m trying to hold back, because I don’t want to get him too excited about what’s going to happen."

Credit Courtesy of Kimberly Roseboro
Kyra Roseboro will go to Bradford Prep charter school in August.

Kim Roseboro plans to send her daughter to kindergarten at Bradford Prep, a charter school in northeast Charlotte. There's no bus to ride or cafeteria to pack into -- children already eat in their classrooms -- but Roseboro, who has an older daughter in second grade there, says she still anticipates safety-related changes.

"It hasn't been formalized but I know it's going to look different," Roseboro says, "and so trying to accept that she may not have the same experience, but that doesn't mean it's not going to be a great experience -- I think as a mother I've got to get over it so I can sell that to my daughter."

Keep Them Home?

Kara Medrano and her husband had been planning to send their oldest child to kindergarten at Endhaven Elementary in south Charlotte. But now they're leaning toward home-schooling. Medrano says she fears public schools will rely too heavily on technology and Zoom meetings.

"And I really wanted more of a hands-on learning, not so much technology-centered education -- especially while my child was younger," she says.

Credit Courtesy of Patty Armstrong
Maggie Armstrong donned a mask and went to Endhaven Elementary to pick up remote-learning packets for her older siblings. Chewbacca is telling students to "stay six Yodas away from each other."

Patty Armstrong, a mother of five whose three oldest are already at Endhaven, is considering the same thing for Maggie, her fourth child. She agrees: Remote learning this year involves "Zooms everywhere."

She says she'll probably keep Maggie home next year if the schools rely on remote learning -- or even if the physical setting is too restrictive, with children required to wear masks and keep their distance from each other.

"If they’re not getting the interactive play and sharing toys and learning the things like that, then there’s not as much of an importance for them to be in a class setting," says Armstrong, who doesn't work outside the home.

But not everyone considers home-schooling a desirable option. Anni Sadow Carroll says she's been home-schooling her preschooler and his two older siblings since the virus closed schools, and it's just not working for her family.

"Even an alternative school schedule will be better than what he’s receiving at home," she says.

Waiting And Wavering

As schools await direction from the state and watch the course of the virus, parents across the region are asking themselves: What will keep my kids physically safe? What’s going to give them the best start, at social skills as well as academics? What can my family manage if more home-schooling is required?

Kim Campbell says she and her husband have registered their son to start kindergarten in Union County Public Schools, but now they’ve also signed him up to stay in transitional kindergarten at the child-care center he was in this year. They’ve also talked about private school.

"And so this goes back and forth in my mind all day every day," she says. She expects to wait until August, when decisions are firm, to make a decision.

All that waiting and wavering has implications for schools as well. If enrollment drops substantially, public schools lose state money and may have to cut teachers. Private schools lose tuition.

But those tallies are still months away. And the question of how many kindergarteners will really show up has to take its place in line behind a lot of other burning questions.

Do you know a student graduating from kindergarten, high school or college in 2020? Celebrate them virtually by submitting a tribute to The Class of 2020

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.