Kindergarten teacher Stacey Lee helps her students find parents as they leave Quarton Elementary school for the day Jan. 20.

Kindergarten teacher Stacey Lee helps her students find parents as they leave Quarton Elementary school for the day Jan. 20.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Schools round up, catch up and ramp up for fall enrollment

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published January 26, 2021

METRO DETROIT — Along with proms and graduation ceremonies, another time-honored school tradition will likely be muddled by COVID-19.

The very first tradition, in fact: kindergarten roundup.

If it’s been some time since you’ve attended or accompanied your little one to their roundup event, it’s a night typically held in the spring at elementary schools to help families learn what they can expect for their first-time student in the coming school year.

Kiddos get the chance to tour classrooms and meet their soon-to-be teachers, so their first day of school in the fall won’t be quite so unfamiliar and fretful.

But that was before the time of social distancing.

Though Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has encouraged school districts to resume in-person teaching by March after nearly a year of online and hybrid learning formats, some families are still wary of meeting groups of people face to face.

Others, though, are eager to hand the instructional responsibilities back to teachers after so many months of distance learning.

That’s what Jill Ghiardi-Cognet has heard. She’s the principal at Quarton Elementary School in Birmingham, and she’s planned the fully virtual kindergarten roundup event for her school Feb. 10.

“I haven’t heard concern (from parents about enrolling kindergarteners). In fact, when announcing our roundup on social media, I’ve had posts from families excited to join our community,” said Ghiardi-Cognet, adding that parents will still have the option in Birmingham Public Schools to keep the online format in the fall. “(But) every family will make the decision that’s right for them. We will support families in their choices.”

For Quarton, the decision to do a virtual roundup event was largely guided by state guidelines to avoid large gatherings. But the online version will have many of the key elements families expect.

“We’ll feature our kindergarten teachers, community school organizer, PTA president and other staff,” she said. “We’ll offer the same presentation; however, it will be in a virtual format. The main difference will be that we’ll have a virtual tour of the building instead of actually walking through our facility.”

Though most parents haven’t expressed hesitance to send their students back in-person for the 2021-22 school year, there certainly was this past summer while schools geared up for the fall term, unsure of what the pandemic might hold in the following weeks.

“Our enrollment is down this year due to the pandemic, and our hope is that (this) school year will be like any typical year,” Ghiardi-Cognet said. “We’re hopeful with continued vaccination and mitigation of the virus that we can all return to a typical year.”

On the other side of metro Detroit, Van Dyke Public Schools Superintendent Piper Bognar said her district hasn’t seen a drop in enrollment specifically due to COVID-19 and doesn’t foresee one for the coming year. Parents are just so ready to get their kids back in classrooms.

“We’ve been in very frequent communication with families, and they know our safety protocols,” she said. “They also want their children to have a normal school experience, whatever that looks like for all of us in the future.”

Kindergarten roundup for VDPS usually takes place in March, which is after the governor’s target date for a return to in-person learning. They plan to host an evening event and a daytime session, too, both of which will be in person so families can meet their principals, at the very least. Meet the Teacher days, she said, are reserved for the fall.

“We’ll move forward with a similar orientation to be sure parents and their little ones feel comfortable,” Bognar explained. “We may still offer school tours, but this will probably look a bit different with less students in the school at once. We always do them by appointment, so that part wouldn’t change.”

As for the kindergarteners who started their school year off online and are slated to head to buildings for the first time in the coming months, Bognar said there will be some kind of orientation in the works for them, too.

“We’ll be working with teams of teachers over the next weeks to craft a plan that will allow a safe return,” Bognar said in an email. “This will include ways to integrate students back to in-person learning in small groups. At this point, we’ve had over 60% of families who want their children to finish the year in a virtual format, so we know that groups will be smaller in general.”

BPS did something similar when in-person learning kicked back off in the district Jan. 11.

In hopes of further comforting parents ahead of the next school year, Whitmer announced Jan. 19 that she would propose the allocation of $2 billion in federal and state funds to help K-12 schools get back to in-person learning safely.

The funds would reportedly go to virus mitigation measures at school facilities, along with additional per-pupil funding with an emphasis on at-risk and special education students.

“We have to embrace that some students need more funding in order to equitably meet their education needs, and this plan is an important step in doing so,” American Federation of Teachers – Michigan President David Hecker said in a prepared statement. “This includes, but is not limited to, the federal government’s investment in Title 1 funding that is putting significant resources into helping at-risk students whose learning is being disproportionately harmed amidst this pandemic.”

Whitmer’s proposal still needs to be approved by the Michigan Legislature.

Whether or not the governor’s recovery plan is approved by lawmakers, educators say a major part of Michigan’s back-to-school plan needs to include provisions to make up for pandemic learning loss.

The Education Trust-Midwest, a nonprofit research organization based in Royal Oak, recently found that 83% of Michigan parents polled believe their child has fallen behind in their education during the pandemic.

“We need to prepare and act now to ensure this learning crisis does not further worsen longstanding opportunity and achievement gaps for Michigan’s students, especially its most underserved children,” Amber Arellano, the executive director of The Education Trust-Midwest, said in a prepared statement. “In the immediate term, this means prioritizing dollars for vulnerable students and leading the development of a strategically sound, research-based plan for Michigan’s educational recovery starting with this summer and fall.”

In that same poll, 83% of parents polled also said they believe state leaders should provide safe, free and voluntary in-person summer school for students that need to catch up.