Are the 5-year-olds ready? Can the county afford it? Do both working and non-working mothers need and want it?

Parents, teachers and administrators in Montgomery County are debating this month the merits and demerits of sending all the county's kindergarteners to school for a whole day.

The administrators drew up an early childhood education policy that outlines one-year, two-year and three-year conversions to all-day kindergarten countywide, with price tags from $1.9 to $2.1 million annually.

They presented the policy recently to about 200 young parents at a public forum, where a panel of teachers and principals described its benefits.

There are significant educational gains, and the longer sessions do not create physical fatigue or emotional strain, early childhood coordinator Delpha Keys told them.

The influences of more day care travel, television and working mothers have changed the needs of 5-year-olds have given them greater potential for learning and have created a demand for all-day kindergarten, according to a paper prepared by the full-day kindergarten program committee and distributed at the forum.

But parents in the audience indicated there was another viewpoint.

June King of Kensington, mother of six, heard the presentation and said later, "When we started to have children, we decided I would stay home and be a mother, and that would be the main thrust of my life. It is done at some sacrifice. We don't have the latest clothes. I haven't brought something for myself in months. But these are sacrifices that we make willingly.

"Families are the building blocks of society and we have a good building block. Couldn't we use that building block to build a better society? I just don't think all-day kindergarten is necessary for all children and for some children it would not be good. Parents should have a choice."

In the policy as it is written, all schools would convert to full-day programs. Parents could, however, take their children home for half the day.

"We all know that if you take a child out of school he's going to feel weird," said King. "And if they hear a story in the afternoon and discuss it the next day, he wouldn't know what they were talking about."

"I think the proposal to go all-day cuntywide is extremely dangerous and very badly thought out," said Kay Davis of Silver Spring. "It's a question of demographics and not education. Some working parents need to leave their children in school all day but not to be educated. Children at that age have not developed enough."

"It's hard to say that all children need it, but certainly they need consistent attention," said Rosemary Hills Elementary School teacher Judith Sasmore, who has taught kindergarten since 1962 and has observed changes in 5-year-olds. Rosemary Hills is one of six schools in the county that currently offers all-day kindergarten.

"Children look for repetition, rules, system, parameters and they these in today's more mobile, transient society," she said.

The 19 children in Sasmore's class start their day 8:50 with attendance. From 9 to 9:10 they salute the flag sing a song, and talk about the calendar and weather. From 9 to 9:30 is story time.During the next hour and a half the class divides up into groups and draws or plays with puzzles or building blocks while Sasmore sits at a table with a group of five or six children and works with words and pictures. From 11 to 11:30 they are outside.

They rest until noon, have lunch and recess until 1 p.m. From 1 to 1:30 they work with numbers, from 1:30 to 2 it's science and social studies, art and music from 2 to 2:30 and for the final 20 minutes they talk about the day's activities.

"We go into more depth and cover more in a full-day program," Sasmore said. "There's not the rush that there is in the two-and-a-half-hour kindergarten."

"These are the children of the kids of the '60s and '70s," said East Silver Spring Elementary School principal Karen Neer. "We have to look at the parents. A lot of changes have taken place.

"Some children have two to two-and-a-half years of day care. They're pretty experienced when they come to us. 'Hey, I've seen that puzzle before,' they say."

They are better able to take care of themselves, they know what to do when they miss the bus, and some parents simply ask the school to send the child home by taxi, she said.

"Some of the kids are very sophisticated through the exposure they've had," Neer added.

About 40 members of the executive committee of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs met to decide on a position vis-a-vis the policy, and found themselves too divided to take a stand. Many found problems with instituting it countywide, while others thought the money could be better used to bring back a 7-period day in the county's high schools.

The board of education will hear the public's views on the early childhood education policy at a hearing Nov. 20 at 8 p.m.