Pandemic Grief

The Kindergarten We Missed

The pandemic began four years ago. Only now do I realize everything that we lost.

by Cristina Tudino

Fanga Alafia Ashe Ashe.

As I heard my daughter singing these words in her warbly little 5-year-old voice last September, tears inexplicably sprung to my eyes.

“What is happening?” I wondered aloud on our walk home from school, her 8-year-old brother ambling along next to us. “Do you remember singing that in kindergarten?” I asked him. “Yeah,” he responded nonchalantly. It clearly hadn’t evoked the same emotional response in him.

Later, after the afternoon and evening pandemonium, when they had finally dozed off, I heard the song playing again in my head. This time it was the warbly little voice of my son, sitting at a white desk in his bedroom, singing to a computer screen filled with little squares of other 5-year-old kids. His class sang it every morning, right after they logged on to “school.” This time, I really let myself cry, feeling an achy sadness for… what? I wasn’t quite sure yet.

It had been three years since Noah was in “remote” kindergarten and almost four years exactly since the world shut down because of Covid-19. Our town, Montclair, New Jersey, made the national news because of how long remote learning continued. From March 2020 to April 2021, more than 365 days (trust me, we were counting) children here never stepped foot inside of a school. These trials pale in comparison to the suffering so many families experienced — suffering that went well beyond an education crisis. And even remote, our children had teachers who adapted to this new environment with grace and enthusiasm; so many kids suffered more, missing critical academic and social milestones.

One of the first pictures Noah drew that year was of a mute button; I have it saved on my bulletin board.

But all I knew at that time, as the mother of a newly minted kindergartener, was that he was trying to learn foundational skills — how to read and write — in just two hours a day from a teacher on a screen. And that he never got to come within 6 feet of his fellow classmates, only seeing them on his computer. In fact, he wouldn’t see the bottom half of some of their faces until 2022 when the mask mandate was finally lifted here.

What I didn’t know was what kindergarten should look like. With many other parents, my experience was confined to our house, helping him log on to a Chromebook every morning (what 5-year-old can spell a password?). His teacher, an absolute angel who had two kids of her own at home, would send us an agenda each week, detailing which pages in his GoMath and “Fundations” books we were to prepare. The night before, I would carefully pull out the perforated pages (because again, what 5-year-old can turn to page 129?).

I was working full time from home and would remain well within earshot of his room, ready to respond to the frequent calls for help. “Mom! Where are my math counters?” “Mom! I can’t find my sight words!” I would run back and forth from the Zoom in my office to the Zoom in his room. Often when I would glance at his screen, I would see one of his classmates slumping off of their chair. Frequently I would hear his teacher remind the same child to “unmute” themselves when called on. One of the first pictures Noah drew that year was of a mute button; I have it saved on my bulletin board.

The author’s son in his zoom Kindergarten during the Pandemic.Courtesy of author
The author’s daughter celebrates her birthday in school this year.Courtesy of author

After virtual lessons were over at 11 a.m., the day generally descended into chaos. Parents were tasked with “afternoon asynchronous activities” and “ongoing weekly projects.” I recently re-read one of the emails we got weekly from his teacher, and in bold, she wrote, “Please try not to be overwhelmed with the following lengthy instructions.” Ha.

At one point, after a massive leak in our bathroom, we spent several weeks out on the screened-in porch, warmed by a space heater — me on work calls, him at his computer, my 2-year-old daughter dressed up as Elsa playing with blocks. During what our school system calls “specials” — art, music, library, which were conducted in a separate Zoom room with that teacher — I would let his sister join. The virtual version of PE was probably the most depressing; we stopped doing it fairly early on, and I would just send Noah and his sister out to play in the backyard instead.

It’s the birthday celebrations, the Halloween parade, the talent shows, the fact that I can actually come into the school to volunteer.

Miraculously, though, Noah actually learned many of those foundational skills: writing upper- and lowercase letters, sounding out words as he began to read, beginning to add and subtract numbers. We were so lucky to have an experienced kindergarten teacher who adapted quickly to the remote format and was able to keep most of the kids’ attention. So many children were not afforded this privilege, falling behind, some still, to this day, struggling to catch up. But only now that my daughter has entered kindergarten in person do I realize what he actually missed.

Sure, some of the things are the same — the “shoebox library” where we store her sight words, the Fundations and GoMath books. But now I can truly see how valuable the classroom is itself: It’s the spot where she sits in a circle next to her classmates every morning to sing “Funga Alafia” every morning. It’s the book buddies program with fifth-graders that she’s obsessed with; the in-person playdates we’ve had with her new little friends at their houses. Other people’s houses! It’s the birthday celebrations, the Halloween parade, the talent shows, the fact that I can actually come into the school to volunteer. I’m even grateful for the spirit weeks that we all complain about now (crazy hat day, dress your kid up like their favorite Lego character?). And, of course, the fact that she is happily occupied from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. — even longer when she participates in afterschool enrichment — is life-changing as a working parent.

It’s the connections she’s made with the other children that hit me the hardest: hearing her come home and talk about how she shared at circle time when her first tooth fell out. Her growing bond with her classmate Bella, whose house I drop her off at sometimes after school. The best, though, is her newfound crush: During our in-person parent-teacher conference, we found out that she had kissed him in the cafeteria. On the mouth! Can you imagine the horror of this scenario four years ago? Of course, we talked to her about hugging instead of kissing, checking in to see if the other person wants such public displays of affection. (Apparently, it’s very mutual.) But mostly I feel enormous relief that there are almost no remnants of the distanced, masked school culture her brother experienced.

Each of her poignant, sweet, silly kindergarten milestones contains a kernel of grief over what Noah lost: the in-class 100th day of school celebration where they marched around the room counting from one to 100 out loud compared to the anticlimactic one Noah had at home with me. The family dance in the gym, during which I had to pull Chloe and her crush apart on the dance floor! Noah had never been to an event like this before. Her in-class birthday party where she got to wear a paper crown and read her favorite book. There were none of these for Noah.

I just learned that Chloe will have a concert at the end of the year, where her kindergarten class will be singing the “Funga” song together. I finally looked up the meaning:

We welcome you with our eyes
We welcome you with our words
We welcome you with our hearts
With nothing up our sleeves.

Cristina Tudino is a writer, editor, and content brand marketer. Her work has appeared in SELF, Health, Oprah, Women’s Health,, Martha Stewart Living, and Glamour. She is the founder of Gemini Consulting Group, and lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children. She also wrote about pelvic floor prolapse for Romper.