LOS ANGELES — It was five minutes past 9 a.m. on the 59th day of school, and Ms. Tai was running late.
"Dad! The internet's not connecting!" the Los Angeles Unified School District kindergarten teacher hollered from her pocket-size classroom — little more than a desk and a couple of posters, screened off from a dresser and a tidy twin bed.
"Mom's is working!" her father, Bob Carter, called back, his voice nearly drowned out by his wife's cheerful morning song.
A year ago, mother and daughter taught in classrooms one room apart at Bushnell Way Elementary School in Highland Park — Mrs. Carter with 4-year-olds, Ms. Tai in a mixed group of children ages 4 and 5. Many of the felt puppets and linking cubes they shared there are the same ones Karen Carter used when her daughter was a student in her classroom. Out of respect for her mother's long tenure, Tai Carter goes by Ms. Tai at school.
Now, the pair teach their pint-size students from home, keeping L.A.'s youngest learners engaged online even as kindergarten enrollment has plummeted and online attendance has slumped.
"I try, but it doesn't always go as planned," Ms. Tai explained as she waited for her laptop to restart. "By time I get in there, half of them will be gone."
Remote learning has strained educators across the country, from Head Start to the Ivy League. But for public school kindergarten teachers like the Carters, this fall has been especially hard. Just 19 states require kindergarten, and in those like California that don't, enrollment has dropped off a cliff.
The Los Angeles Unified School District alone lost 6,000 kindergartners this year — more than one-third of the total drop in enrollment districtwide — and reports suggest that many who remain log into class only sporadically. For those who show up, technical issues abound.
"We were stuck in the waiting room!" one little boy cried when Ms. Tai's classroom finally opened at 9:08 a.m. "It kept loading for years and years!"
Traditionally, kindergarten has been the doorway between early childhood and elementary education: a passage from finger paints to phonics, sandboxes to subtraction. But for children who started their academic career online this fall, that doorway has instead become a kind of waiting room. Academically, kindergarten is the same online as it was "in-seat" before COVID-19. But experts say academics are only a small part of what young students are meant to learn in school.