Navigating preschool during a pandemic
On a typical day, preschool students might share supplies like playdough, crayons or books.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought many changes to early learning centers, including Red Barn Preschool in Estacada and the Clackamas County Children's Commission's Head Start locations in Boring and Estacada. One of the new guidelines states that preschools should limit the number of toys children share to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
"A big piece of preschool is learning how to cooperatively play," said Val Hanken, a teacher at Red Barn Preschool.
In August, the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority released the Health and Safety guidelines for childcare and early education centers operating during COVID-19. Among other requirements, parents or guardians must drop off or pick up children from program staff outside the facility and engage in social distancing and wear a face mask or shield while doing so; the facility must provide hand hygiene stations at the building's entrance; children must have their temperature taken upon entering; and students must be kept in small groups with the same adults. Per the guidelines, children between two and kindergarten age can wear a face covering by parental request, and they are required for adults and children entering kindergarten or older.
As the 2020-21 school year begins, Hanken and other educators are finding ways to navigate this new normal and ensure that their students acquire skills and socio-emotional development to guide them through the rest of their academic careers.
Supporting young students
The Clackamas County Children's Commission operates 11 Head Start and Early Head Start locations around the region, including its Estacada Center and its Sandy Ridge Center in Boring. This fall, classes will start virtually and then transition to in-person beginning Monday, Oct. 19, if COVID-19 regulations allow. During the online sessions, a small number of students will be able to participate in person, particularly if their families do not have other options for childcare.
Darcee Kilsdonk, executive director of the Clackamas County Children's Commission, said services are starting virtually to prepare students and teachers for that option if there is a positive case of COVID-19 in the school community.
"We want to get people comfortable with virtual [learning] so they're prepared if we have to convert to that," she added.
This past spring, Head Start centers converted to virtual operations because of the pandemic. Along with performing home visits through FaceTime or Zoom, center staff facilitated stations where families could pick up learning packets, meals, diapers and other items.
Additionally, the commission hosted summer camps in Estacada and Boring, which focused on children entering kindergarten.
"We had a virtual program, but that doesn't equate to a classroom experience," Kilsdonk said. "This helped kids think about sharing, and what circle time and independent play look like."
There were many modifications at the camps, which will continue for fall classes. For example, groups of students cannot exceed 10. Although 6-foot social distancing rules will not be enforced with the young children, there will be a maximum of two students allowed in individual play areas.
During the virtual programs, many Head Start students have been staying with family members or friends. If this isn't an option, commission staff have connected parents with emergency childcare centers.
Kilsdonk praised Head Start staff and families for adapting to the changes that this year has presented.
"As difficult as it's been, it's been a testament to the commitment of the early childhood workforce. I've been impressed with our staff's ability to pivot, and our families have been so resilient and open to the changes," Kilsdonk said. "We're stronger because of it."
Together through technology
After closing this past spring because of the COVID-19 outbreak, leaders at Red Barn Preschool are preparing to transition to distance learning this fall. The school will move to an in-person program when the Estacada School District switches from virtual learning to a hybrid model, which is tentatively scheduled for Friday, Oct. 30, if COVID-19 regulations allow.
Along with take home packets and a private YouTube channel with stories and music activities, Hanken also plans to host weekly Zoom meetings with the students.
"We learn about primary colors, so when we have red week, everyone will wear red," she explained. "It will be kind of like circle time, where everyone shows what they're wearing. We'll have story and music time, too."
"We want to make sure kids have something to engage with online. We want to get kids to know each other, so they're comfortable with each other when they can go back to school," added Aeriel Johnson, a parent at Red Barn who also serves as the school's fundraising chair.
Hanken noted that they'll work up to having longer Zoom sessions that include bigger activities, like scavenger hunts.
"Even if (the students) can only be in front of a computer for two minutes, we don't want to force it," she said. "We want this to be a positive experience and not a negative one."
Along with distance learning activities, Red Barn will host brief in-person sessions on Fridays, with fewer students than usual — there can be a maximum of 10 students per class, compared to the school's typical classes of 18. The meetings will last an hour and a half.
"We'll do some of the things we'd do in a regular preschool day," Hanken said, adding the online effort will help students with the transition to an in-person model. "It won't be like it's the start of a new school year. They'll already be used to being here."
Hanken noted that because Red Barn is a co-op and parents are often involved in its day-to-day activities, many students already have someone to be with them during distance learning.
Though the upcoming school year will be an unusual one, Hanken is looking forward to connecting with students.
"It's not the traditional way I like to teach preschool. A big part is socialization and learning how to interact with kids and other adults," she said. "Zoom is going to be a way to connect with students. Kids can see their classmates. I'm encouraging parents to set up virtual playdates."
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