first day

Kindergarteners take a socially distanced mask break during the first day of school at Parker-Varney Elementary School in Manchester on Sept. 10, 2020.

After a year of daycare disruptions from COVID-19 clusters and quarantines — and life with stressed-out parents — some children might not be ready to start kindergarten in the fall.

With day care spots in short supply as programs closed and numbers were limited, preschoolers spent more time at home, said Debra Nelson, director of the state Head Start Collaboration.

That gave them less time to learn to socialize with other kids. It also meant child care center employees had less time to work with them, identify developmental needs or pick up on issues at home.

In or out of day care, families struggled with food insecurity at record rates. Parents’ stress at losing a job or income or the pressures of balancing remote school and work will have rubbed off on children. Some children have lost family members.

All these stresses likely had an impact on little brains, Nelson said.

Difficult experiences in the early years may show up sooner or later as behavioral challenges that make it harder for kids to sit still and learn.

Anticipating some trouble, school districts are using federal stimulus dollars to help kids make the transition to school with fewer stumbles.

In Manchester, a three-week summer program for children entering kindergarten will show them what school will look and feel like — beginning with a cafeteria breakfast.

Soon-to-be kindergarteners will get used to being in school and brush up on skills like sitting at a table, listening and following directions, said Kelly Jobel, who is helping design summer learning for Manchester students this year.

“A lot of transition things that we’ve heard from teachers are basic,” Jobel said. “Things like taking something out of your lunchbox, or being able to leave mom or dad.”

The bridge program is also looking to refresh skills and address any gaps, to set children up to start learning math and reading, said Sherri Nichols, who works with Jobel in Manchester.

Parents and families can benefit from transition programs too, Nelson said. Sometimes families need help understanding what is expected in kindergarten, what can they do to reinforce lessons at home, Nelson said.

Families might also need help learning what level of involvement during the day is appropriate, she said, especially if they were used to volunteering in preschool classrooms and spending a lot of time with their children.

Concord has long tried to make the transition from day care to school as smooth as possible for families, children and the schools, said Laurie Hart, who works with families and young children coming into Concord schools.

In late spring, teachers meet families and get a sense for the children, Hart said, like how much experience they have in a school-like setting. School staff connect families with other community resources including the Family Resource Centers, and children get a feel for their new school.

Children who need a little more help getting ready to start school can get signed up for a summer program, similar to what Manchester will offer.

Above all, children will need to feel safe and cared for in school. Hart said children need to learn their teachers and other adults who care for them will nurture them and keep them safe. Positive relationships with adults are important for a child’s healthy development, she said, and for their eventual success in school.

“We have learned so much about how to support children,” Hart said. “We really feel that being in a positive learning environment is one of those factors.”

Community extends beyond the school, Nelson said, and transition-to-kindergarten programs can help connect families with other resources, like before- and after-school care and social services.

Getting children ready to enter kindergarten typically involves a lot of collaboration between schools, child care providers, families and sometimes other community organizations — but ongoing building closures, limits on gathering in person or ongoing discomfort with gatherings promise to make some of these connections more difficult.

Manchester schools have not been open for parents and their preschoolers to tour and meet their teachers in person. Instead, schools are putting photo slideshows online to help children and families get to know the schools a little.

Of course, it’s not the same. The collaboration between families, teachers, day care providers and community organizations to help a child make the jump from preschool to kindergarten is harder this year. Everything has been harder, Nelson said. But this year’s challenges do not have to be permanent setbacks.

“We know there were some lost opportunities for children’s learning over the past year,” she said.

“But lost opportunities can open up other opportunities, in ways we didn’t anticipate.”

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