We've raised the bar on kindergarten. That's a double-edged sword in a pandemic.

What's the big deal with kindergarten? You only paint with your fingers.
I hear that a lot. And that used to be a kindergarten.
But it is no more.
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The academic bar is much higher now than it was 20 years ago. Back then, the lessons focused heavily on colors, basic letter sounds, and counting to 10.
Now kids basically add and subtract and learn to read and write whole sentences.
Kindergarten is the new first grade in many ways. And that has a huge impact as we move through the pandemic.
The kindergarten is stricter now
Lakeview School kindergarten students are working on an art project at their Mahopac school while their classmates are remotely working on the same project on December 1, 2020.
An often-cited study from 2016 shows how much has changed. The study compared the survey responses of thousands of kindergarten teachers in 1998, before No Child Left Behind was passed, and in 2010, when the Common Core Standards took shape. It turned out that:
Most teachers in 2010 felt that students should read until the end of kindergarten and that students should know the alphabet and how to hold a pencil upon arrival. This was not the case in 1998.
Many teachers spent more time on advanced reading and math concepts in 2010 than in 1998, such as sentence structure and probability, and less time on science and social studies.
In 2010, fewer classrooms had “centers” where children could dress in costume or play on a sand or water table, although in 1998 they were far more common. However, children had more breaks in 2010 than in the late 1990s.
In 2010, more kindergarten teachers took part in standardized tests than first graders in 1998. Kindergarten teachers were not even asked about tests that year.
It's good to raise the bar. Subsequent research found that 5- and 6-year-olds can handle more advanced reading and math concepts, and spending more time with them doesn't necessarily affect the social and emotional skills they need to learn in kindergarten.
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But how we do it is important in view of the research mountain, which also shows that kindergarten teachers mainly learn through games and practical activities. If we are to expect more from students, we also need to make sure we deliver this content in a way that will set them up for success.
COVID-19 threw a wrench
What brings us to the pandemic.
Unfortunately, even before life changed in March, only a few 4-year-olds from Arizona were enrolled in preschool. It can be expensive, and many of the cheaper options have limited slots.
This is a problem because research has shown that students who attend high quality pre-school programs tend to do better academically and have fewer behavioral problems in elementary school.
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Even fewer are getting the hands-on preparation they need in Arizona and across the country as COVID-19 has closed or postponed many programs online.
The situation is similar in kindergarten, where enrollment fell by 14% nationwide this fall - more than in other classes. Since children don't have to go to school in Arizona until the age of 6, it is believed that many parents will keep their 5-year-olds at home.
That means they could miss kindergarten completely and go to school in first grade - which could cause problems if parents didn't adequately prepare them for the greater rigor they face there as first grade now the new second class is. State law also mandates that students must be competent readers by the end of third grade or they risk being withheld.
Personal learning is also a struggle
However, schools also have difficulty preparing young learners for this reality. Distance learning has been challenging for most as few programs can offer the comprehensive, hands-on lessons that 5- and 6-year-olds need to understand more advanced concepts.
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In-person programs have also rolled back elements of game-based learning, fearing that it could contribute to the spread of the novel coronavirus. Anecdotally, many students spend more time at their desks with no circuit time or lots of hands-on activities. Most shared items have been destroyed, and not all schools have the resources to provide individual items for each student.
As a result, worksheets have become even more common.
The educators did a lot of manual labor about how far the students could fall behind, and not just in kindergarten. Legislators are expected to stand trial in January to stop standardized tests or at least not count this year's results against schools and teachers.
In fact, the struggles students face - not just in Arizona but across the country - are likely to spark conversations about how we are accountable and what we expect from students.
With luck, it will also inspire teachers to take a second look at how we teach in these most formative years, even during a pandemic.
Joanna Allhands is the Digital Opinion Editor for the Republic of Arizona, where this column originally appeared. Follow her on Twitter: @joannaallhands.
You can read various opinions of our Board of Contributors and other authors on the Opinion homepage, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily opinion newsletter. To reply to a column, send a comment to letters@usatoday.com.
This article originally appeared in the Republic of Arizona: Kindergarten is not the same as it was. That is both good and bad.

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