The Kindergartners Of 2020 Share What They Remember About The Pandemic
What do America’s tiniest students recall about that switch to Chromebooks at the dining room table three years ago?
Collecting my children’s bagged “personal items” from their school in a socially distanced line while wearing a homemade cloth mask is the most vivid memory I have of the entire coronavirus disaster. There were many other scarier, more stressful situations, but something about that moment — the red polka-dot mask, the empty classroom with only plastic bags on the desks that should have been filled with adorable, rambunctious 5- and 6-year-olds — stays with me.
In March 2020, when we got that robocall that parents around the country were also receiving (15 days to “flatten the curve!”), I had a second grader, twin kindergarteners, and a toddler in day care. It’s been three years since that first harrowing month. And while those plastic bags filled with little coats and carefully selected school supplies are seared into my memory, I wondered what my kids, who have grown and changed so much, remember from that chaotic time — especially the ones whose first experience of elementary school turned into the most unprecedented of times.
Do my kids just remember the bad stuff, the times I lost my cool, the fear of getting sick or even dying?
I know they haven’t fully recovered three years later — and neither have many of their peers. A joint study in 2022 by several educational authorities in the U.S. found all that missed learning had catastrophic effects on our students, with the most negatively affected being younger kids and those in high-poverty districts. Of course, older and more well-resourced students fared better. In fact, virtual kindergarten got such bad reviews that enrollment dropped sharply the following school year. Many parents chose to delay school altogether rather than sign their kids up for what 2020’s kindergartners had gone through.
But what do they actually remember? How does a 6-year-old’s mind process and hold an experience like that? Do my kids just remember the bad stuff, the times I lost my cool, the fear of getting sick or even dying? I asked them, along with others who were in kindergarten that fateful March. Now 8 and 9 years old, their responses surprised and moved me — and reminded me that while they all had different experiences, we parents and teachers really did the best we could.
I was startled to learn that despite the fact that Covid arrived in the latter half of the school year, it’s been superimposed over all of my twins’ memories of kindergarten. They tell me they don’t really remember a time without masks and think they wore them for that entire school year.
I asked Ezra about the first day of kindergarten, to see what he recalls from before that March. “Well, I was fit, Mom. That means cool, fly, in your old language.” He remembers playing on iPads, which felt novel at the time — before they became how he accessed school entirely. He talks about a field trip to a local pumpkin patch as a highlight of the school year. Once school shut down, he says it was hard having no one to play with and “trying to learn to play with friends online instead.”
Ezra reminded me of a day we went to his teacher’s house with a few friends and decorated her sidewalk with positive messages. “I missed my friends, but we got to see Abby and Maggie that day.” It was the first time they played with friends in masks. He laughs when discussing a scavenger hunt where all the students had to find “a cylinder” somewhere in their homes. His twin sister returned with a jar of peanut butter, but he had a bottle of wine. “Everyone laughed,” he says.
“You both were kind of annoying. Not to be rude, but you said ‘mmm-hmmm’ a lot but I knew you weren’t really listening.”
“I also remember we had just gotten Charlie,” he tells me. “Having a puppy made everything about corona school better. It sucked pretty bad otherwise. When I did get Covid, it was super bad. I felt like I was going to go into a coma.” Now, he tells me he loves school. “I am glad to be back. I missed my friends, like Brody. And my teacher now? His family owns the farm we went to in kindergarten!”
Naomi has always been the chattier one of the pair. I knew she would have some tea to spill. “Zoom kindergarten was not fun. I missed my friends. And there was always an echo because Ezra and I were trying to be on two different computers at the same time, in the same house. It was not good, Mom.” At the time, Naomi infamously announced to the class, “Corona school is a jerk.” A school board member liked her assessment so much that he made her a sign to carry at socially-distanced kindergarten graduation emblazoned with that quote.
“All the days felt the same.”
Naomi talked a lot about trying to do school while both of her parents worked. “You both were kind of annoying. Not to be rude, but you said ‘mmm-hmmm’ a lot but I knew you weren’t really listening,” she says. “Also sometimes on the weekend, I thought it was time for school. But then I realized there was no school. All the days felt the same.” She does remember many hikes we took as a family — that makes me smile, because those are my most positive memories of 2020, too.
When Naomi grows up, she will tell kids who don’t remember the pandemic, “It was not fun and it was very boring.”
“What I remember about the first day of kindergarten was I hung up my bookbag in a cubby,” Alice tells me. “When we sat down we always got out our notebooks. If you were early, you could play with toys on the floor.” She remembers playing dinosaurs with two friends in particular because she was “really good at roaring.”
“The pandemic can also ruin hobbies. I used to do Girl Scouts but then it got canceled. Then baseball got canceled.”
“I was scared,” says Alice about hearing that her school was closing. “I was worried about the effects it would have on my relationship with my friends. I was sad that I couldn’t have play dates and we couldn’t get to go in-person on our field trip.”
Zoom kindergarten wasn’t all bad, though. “When we first logged onto Zoom we got to see alligators and iguanas,” she says. Alice remembers lots of unfettered free time, too. “My parents let me stay on my tablet for pretty much the whole day. My parents worked from home, and they weren’t off work.”
When Alice tells her baby sisters about the pandemic someday, she wants to let them know how “weird and hard” it was. “It changed my social interaction in the real world because I couldn’t be outside with other people and had to talk online instead,” she says. “The pandemic can also ruin hobbies. I used to do Girl Scouts but then it got canceled. Then baseball got canceled.”
Now that Alice is back in a classroom, she’s really enjoying third grade. “School is fun now. It’s different from before the pandemic because we get to sit at desks, and read actual books, and turn and talk, and talk at lunch and talk at PE!”
Calvin says they don’t remember their first day of kindergarten specifically, but they remember the friendships they made. “At recess, we played this game my friend made up where we’d take turns trying to kick each other on the slide. But we took our shoes off first. It wasn’t a mean game. It was a game to make us laugh, and that’s probably my favorite memory.”
“It’s hard to remember the beginning of the pandemic sometimes because I just didn’t like it and I felt worried, so I try to not think about it a lot.”
Calvin’s class did have one field trip before news of the novel coronavirus began to appear. They say they did not worry too much at first. “I kind of was thinking, ‘This is just a little virus breakout. It’s not like it’s gonna cause a whole epidemic.’ And then a whole epidemic happened, and I feel like I really hardcore jinxed myself.”
Once it became apparent that this was a Big Deal, Calvin says they experienced a lot of anxiety. “I thought, like, Covid will spread everywhere and we’ll all catch it and get sick and die. Just like, get Covid, two days later, boom, die,” they told me. “So, I felt really stressed, and it’s hard to remember the beginning of the pandemic sometimes because I just didn’t like it and I felt worried, so I try to not think about it a lot.”
While they have now blocked out much of the early pandemic as a coping mechanism, Calvin does remember some parts of virtual kindergarten clearly. “I was glad my friends were there, but that part wasn’t actually that joyful because whenever we tried to talk to each other, the teachers would get all snappy. So we couldn’t really talk to each other at all. We could just look at each other.”
Calvin’s parents decided not to send them back when school reopened — at first, because of the lack of Covid safety precautions in Nebraska. Eventually, they realized homeschooling was a better fit; Calvin is happy with the choice. “I didn’t like doing school on Zoom, but when we started doing homeschool with my mom and dad, it was easier. I felt more calm and not just all over the place, like, ‘Oh, I need to do this or I’m probably going to get a bad punishment.’” When the family pauses to think about the entire ordeal, this particular change ultimately worked in their favor. “We probably wouldn’t have tried doing school at home if we didn’t have the pandemic so I think that’s actually one good thing that happened,” says Calvin.
For William, most of kindergarten feels “foggy.” He has snapshots of memories before the pandemic, but not much is concrete, says his mom Priscilla. She says “The Before Times” seem almost nonexistent to him; as with my twins, there’s a Covid lens over all of his memories.
William says he doesn’t “remember anything about virtual kindergarten” — just that everyone was home constantly. “I think my dad and mom were working at home. They work at home all the time now.”
“When I'm at home, I like that I don't have to get any germs or be touched by classmates.”
He stayed virtual for first grade, which he remembers a bit more clearly — once life was out of crisis mode. “I think I liked being in the apartment when it was Halloween and I dressed up as Link, from Legend of Zelda. My dad dressed up as Spider-Man and my mom dressed up as a ladybug. I don't remember anything I didn't like,” he says.
Now back to class in person, he says he sometimes misses being at home with his parents. “I like being at school because in my third-grade class for Fun Friday, there's a game called Prodigy that I play. I've been playing it since second grade.” (Prodigy is a virtual math game that became popular during virtual learning.)
He still has anxiety about the virus, though — like many of us do. “When I'm at home, I like that I don't have to get any germs or be touched by classmates.”
These twins outside of St. Louis, who go almost exclusively by “Peanut” and “Butter,” remember that since their mom, Nikki, drives a bus for their school, she got to be “off” along with them. “My mom taught us because she didn’t work, and my PawPaw had to cut our hair,” says Peanut. Butter chimes in with the best part: “My Memaw cooked for us all the time.” (As a single mom, Nikki relied heavily on her parents for support during the early stages of the pandemic.)
“I had to take therapy on the computer too and I didn't like that at all.”
“I liked that we could sleep in and not have to go to school early in the morning,” says Peanut. “I didn't like that we had to stay home all the time.” Butter also enjoyed the additional family time, he says. “I loved being home with my family and being able to chill and watch movies and play games. I didn't like the fact that we couldn't really go anywhere.”
As for virtual school? It exacerbated learning differences. The boys, born prematurely, had a lot of extra supports in school that were difficult to replicate virtually. They both say they felt nervous to be on screen. “I was shy and I didn't like to be on the camera but I did like seeing my friends. It was hard to do all the papers that we got,” says Peanut. Butter chimes in, “I liked seeing my friends on the computer, but I felt a little shy. I had to take therapy on the computer too and I didn't like that at all.”
As for what they will tell kids one day about the pandemic? “Something happened that made everybody scared, and a lot of people got sick and died,” says Peanut. Butter has more elaborate plans. “I would say, ‘Long ago, in a faraway land… there was a coronavirus.’ I'm just kidding, I'd tell them to just wait. They'll learn about it in school one day!”
Kai had been enjoying kindergarten when the school closed, especially the celebrations. “On your birthday, everybody would get a book where every single person would go around there and draw a card and one person would sit in their corner and play with toys while everybody draws a card and the page of the book, and then they'd give it to them and they could look through it.” Since his birthday was before school started in September 2019, his special day was rescheduled for later in the school year. He pantomimes dramatic tears as he tells me, “I didn't get it because it was cut off by quarantine. I am so mad.”
“We just constantly tried to find things that make us occupied for an hour, and then we had to look for another thing.”
His favorite thing about Zoom kindergarten was the fun backgrounds — until the teachers turned off that feature. He says he didn’t learn much, though he knows teachers tried things like digital field trips. “It was a good idea, but not executed well.”
Kai says when his parents were working from home, there were some upsides. “I liked that we got to definitely spend a lot of time together, but what I didn’t like was there’s a bunch of it. It was kind of boring and it was like we were just looking for things to do. We just constantly tried to find things that make us occupied for an hour, and then we had to look for another thing.”
Overall, Kai is thrilled to be back in person and hopes to never do school virtually again. “You get to see your friends. You would learn more things because you can be more accustomed to the desk, can move around and stuff. You have all the materials already there, and there's a gym and stuff. There's actual art class in person.”
Before the school year started, Alexander had made a new friend at soccer — Cooper — whom he remembers easing his first-day jitters: “When I went into the classroom I immediately spotted him and started talking to him, and ever since I saw him on my soccer team we've been best friends.”
Every morning, he would have a delicious but messy breakfast. “I always had waffles and Nutella for breakfast, and Mrs. Orisini, my kindergarten teacher, had to clean my face.” Those in-person memories of friendship and caring quickly changed when he started to hear about the coronavirus.
“I like learning at school better. Because you meet all your classmates in person and your teacher in person.”
Alexander recalls being told not to worry. “I remember my mom telling me that the other countries had to deal with it and didn't do anything.” (His mom, Tovah, notes that this is not what she said.)
“I liked when they started school on computers and I had my computer and could sometimes play games on it.” He also liked the shorter schedule — school ended at 12:30 p.m. Changing focus from his home to the computer for school is something he vividly recalls; he describes the shift to the virtual classroom as feeling like “a jump.”
He is glad to be fully back in person now. “I like learning at school better. Because you meet all your classmates in person and your teacher in person. Your teacher doesn't have to announce it on Zoom and she can show you what to do. On Zoom, you can't really do that.”
As the youngest of four girls, A.J. had big hopes for kindergarten. She had watched her sisters each take their turn. Instead, she ended up with a version that paled in comparison. “People were getting sick and going to the hospital. We had to stay home and wear masks. If someone got sick they were going to have to live in the basement and no one wants to live in the basement,” she told me.
“My mom's job was being in charge.”
With the whole family at home, A.J. says she watched a lot more screens, though she didn’t mind. “The grown-ups worked at home trying to figure out what type of math and reading the kids needed to learn,” she says about the rocky transition to virtual learning.
A.J.’s mom Saundra is a board-certified behavioral analyst who had to run her agency from home at a time when students with behavioral needs were struggling the most. “My mom's job was being in charge. During Covid, we spent less time together because my mom worked all the time in her room.” It was an intense time for the family, Saundra told me. She also says that the pandemic interrupted access to special education services, and they are just now finally getting A.J. the support she needs to thrive.
As for A.J., she says she’s happy to be back at school, even though there are still challenges. “Before Covid we got to see our friends and not wear masks. After the pandemic, we have to wear a thousand masks and I switched schools, had to make new friends, and learn French — which is a struggle. It is a lot of pressure now.” When I asked her what she’d tell little kids about the pandemic once she’s all grown up, she says she’ll share the story of her family buying a ton of ice cream from a shuttered shop that needed to unload their stock. “My mom made a hunt and we ate ice cream all day. It was the best day.”