When It’s Safe, Offer in-Person Learning to Youngest Kids First

This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Amarillo Globe-News, the Waxahachie Daily Light, and other papers.

Online learning works better for teens and tweens than kindergartners. And a solid foundation in the earliest grades is critical to students’ long-term success. So education leaders should make our youngest students — including young English learners — a priority this school year and during the next legislative session.


Texas Education Agency report found that this past spring, pre-K and kindergarten students — as well as children of color and lower-income kids — were less engaged in distance learning. The fact is, our youngest kids learn best through hands-on engagement with teachers attentive to their needs and face-to-face interactions with other kids to build social skills. That’s especially true for writing and language development in early grades.

Even if a teacher can design a Zoom call for a kindergartner who has a computer and internet access, it only works if a parent can serve as the IT department and teaching aide. I struggled to keep my third grader on task while working from home this spring, and he was completely disinterested in the class activities offered via Zoom. The challenge is even greater for parents who work outside the home, are still learning English, struggle with online technology, or have younger kids.

We also know from brain science that early childhood education is the foundation for later success. That’s why, when the Legislature set a goal last year of making sure more kids are strong readers by third grade, they wisely invested in full-day pre-K and strong dual language education in early grades.

While these early years are important for all students, they’re particularly important for putting English learners on a path to become strong readers and fluent in both English and their home language. This is the age range when the brain is most ready and able to acquire two or more languages. With English learners accounting for more than a quarter of Texas students in kindergarten through second grade, meeting their academic needs is critical for meeting the state’s education goals.

We know many districts simply can’t open their school doors on day one because of COVID. In those cases, districts should make distance learning as effective as possible in these early grades for students of all linguistic backgrounds.

But when school leaders, teachers and health experts agree that it’s safe for a portion of the student body to attend school in person, districts should first offer that option to families of our youngest students. The Austin Public Health Medical Director recently made the same recommendation, echoing national experts. Other students to prioritize for on-campus learning include kids with disabilities, students who lack technology or other resources at home and young English Learners.

Since meeting outdoors may reduce the risk of the virus spreading, administrators should prioritize the youngest students for a district’s outdoor classroom, even if it’s just a spot under a leafy oak tree. Similarly, as smaller class sizes will help young children learn safely, districts should leverage child care centers, public libraries or high schools for extra space needs.

To help make distance learning more effective and in-person learning safer, state and federal leaders should provide additional funding to districts. Districts need resources to train educators on using digital learning platforms for young children. And lawmakers, superintendents and principals should open up lines of communication with families of our youngest students — including parents who don’t speak English or don’t use email — to hear their concerns and feedback.

Even after school is back to normal, the educational impact of this disruption will persist for years. State leaders will need to use the next legislative session to ensure young English learners and other young students are on a strong educational track.