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Many Pinal County students have been returning to classrooms despite the plague of COVID-19. That is just part of the process of trying to return to a normal, yet more careful, life, but it is a big part. State officials monitoring the situation have found something missing — a large number of kindergartners.

While enrollment in the public schools is down 5% compared to last year, it is 14% for kindergarten. The obvious reason is many parents fear sending the kids to school in the current situation, although experts say the risk to most youngsters is low.

The state considers kindergarten to be optional, and many parents may feel that their kids can make up what they’re missing in kindergarten. However, state schools chief Kathy Hoffman says that’s not so easily done. And it’s more than just academics, according to the superintendent of public instruction. Social and emotional learning are a crucial part of that year. Learning on a computer is not the same, and anyway, it is difficult to learn remotely at that age. And experts on child development strongly urge limiting screen time.

The state has a law, albeit controversial, that prevents promotion from third grade if reading skills are not adequate. And Hoffman said many students who skip kindergarten will face that challenge. The best plan for those who do not attend kindergarten this year is to do it next year, and not jump to first grade, she said.

Many people in the government and medicine are hopeful of having an effective vaccine for the coronavirus distributed within months. That would do much to solve this huge problem. But whether there is a vaccine or not, shutting down is not an answer. We can see that by looking at the resurgence of the disease in Europe. Getting back to school is a crucial part of the recovery, and kindergarten is no small part of that.

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