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Remote learning, preschool style, during COVID-19 isolation

Kindergartner Kellen O'Connell says thank you to his teachers at Mountain Village Montessori Charter School during a drive-thru, end-of-year parade.
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Watching a group of preschoolers on a Zoom call is both an indicator of the bizarre time in which we find ourselves and a lot more entertaining than most work meetings.

During a recent virtual Spanish class at Mountain Village Montessori Charter School in Steamboat Springs, the teacher led her students in a song before a lesson about chickens and other birds.

Some of the kids were actively engaged and singly loudly. One girl was listening while eating her cereal. A few spots just showed empty chairs — or the camera pointed at the ceiling.

Hairstyles and outfits varied greatly, and a few wore headphones. One girl wore a tiara. Occasionally, a parent or a sibling appeared in the background.

At the same time as the Spanish class, another group of kids virtually celebrated one of their classmate’s birthday.

In an era where many kids are as tech savvy as their parents by the time they are walking and talking, there is still no substitute for the sounds, sights and human connections found in a real classroom.

Somewhere around 90% of a human’s brain develops by the time they are 5, and during those years, kids are learning important life skills like how to express emotions, communication, listening, group work and empathy.

It is unclear how the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the littlest of learners, but one thing observed by numerous local preschool leaders was the impressive resiliency of the kids.

However, they also saw kids who missed their friends and teachers. Several preschools that either closed or continued operating at a reduced capacity held regular virtual classes with their kids.

Those meetings have been as much about maintaining connections as academics, said Tami Havener, executive director of the Discovery Learning Center. Teachers did come up with creative lesson plans for Discovery’s twice-a-day meetings, Havener said, but the virtual classes also provided a chance for everyone to just see each other.

Illustrating a “Brady Bunch”-like screen, Havener described kids trying to look below themselves, leaning forward and looking around the corner to figure out where their onscreen friends were in their physical reality.

At first, they tried to talk to each other by turning to the next square on the screen, she said, or yelling something at the kid beneath them.

On one of the first calls, one little girl said, “Hey you guys. I have to tell you this. Our preschool is closed, but you can come say ‘hi’ from our porch.”

At Montessori, teacher Jessica LeBlanc described the routine — beginning with ringing a bell and several deep breaths. Then a song and a book. Sometimes, they brought guests, like an art teacher who demonstrated a real-time drawing, and someone from Yampatika, who taught the kids about the water cycle. One dad played guitar for the sing-a-long portion.

At the end of the class, LeBlanc said the children had the opportunity to share whatever might be going through their little heads at that moment.

Montessori and many other preschools, including those that didn’t have teachers still working, also spent significant time putting together resources for families and directing them to the many free online learning opportunities. They also gave tips for parents now struggling to work from home while watching their children — like giving the kids 15 minutes of undivided attention every hour and then helping them find ways to entertain themselves independently for the remaining 45 minutes, when parents had to get work done and didn’t have help.

LeBlanc said they also encouraged families to include their children in things like cooking, laundry and gardening. And, knowing the challenges families were facing, LeBlanc said they encouraged parents to take things one day at a time.

Havener said she emphasized to her parents not to stress about whether their kids were missing any academic learning pieces but rather to focus on making sure they felt safe and loved.

At Little Lambs Preschool in Phippsburg, owner Kasey O’Halloran stayed open in her physical space but with only a fraction of the normal classes. She said she quickly realized how much the kids who were at home missed their friends and teachers, so they started daily circle times to unite the kids at school with the kids at home.

Sometimes, the kids at home would just watch their friends play, and other meetings turned into a show and tell of pets and favorite toys.

Some kids would hide behind the couch, wanting to watch but not wanting to be seen, she said.

O’Halloran is a mother to two boys, ages 3 and 5, and is due with her third child on July 4.  At first, she said her 5-year-old had a hard time because everything shut down right before his birthday. They had been planning a birthday trip, and everything was canceled. O’Halloran said her son internalized it somewhat and thought he had done something wrong.

But as she continued to watch her own kids and those at the center, O’Halloran was impressed by their resiliency.

“They adapt so well,” she said. “We’ve learned so much spending more time with these little people, and they have taught us how to go with the flow and change with the changing world.”

And while the kids miss seeing their teachers and friends, the teachers said the hardest part of all this by far has been missing their kids.

Now, as more early learning centers reopen and welcome their kids back, teachers will have to see how well their students fall back into old routines.

At GrandKids Child Care Center, which is now reopening in a phased-in approach, Director Jessica Carroll said she has been “incredibly surprised how resilient the children are and how adaptable.”

Carroll said while they were expecting a challenging transition back into the classroom — especially with all the new protocols — things actually didn’t take very long to feel fairly normal again.

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.


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