With School Cancelled, Pre-K Teachers in California Worry about the Well-being of Their Students

Teachers are using creative means to connect with young children and their families. But without school, teachers say children are suffering.
Blog Post
Photo courtesy of Maranatha Hosick
May 5, 2020

In late March, preschool teacher Cynthia Guzman found herself driving the neighborhood where she teaches in southeast Fresno waving to her students and their families. She was joining a neighborhood car parade organized by the elementary school.

“The moms were waving, yelling “llámame!” (call me). “Not everyone came out,” she said. “But I could see little hands waving through the windows.”

It was a socially distanced way of connecting to her students, whom she hadn’t seen face to face since the school closed due to the coronavirus.

“It feels eerie,” said Guzman, who said she left her classroom so quickly that many things were left behind. “This laptop, the plants, the fridge, the fish. Teachers are still crying. There’s no closure.”

Many of Guzman’s 41 students are from families with low-incomes, have insecure housing, and most speak Spanish or Hmong at home. Guzman didn’t keep a class email list (she normally sees families every day) and was worried about keeping in touch and how her families would weather this crisis.

She has since devised multiple means of staying in touch including phone calls, messages through apps like ClassDojo, video conferences, and even home visits. She is also helping families connect to online resources through internet-enabled tablets provided by the school district to all preschool and pre-K students.

Though the missed learning time is a concern, Guzman’s focus is making sure her students and their families know that the school is still there to provide support and comfort. She’s particularly worried about the farmworkers and families who are undocumented. Many have no work now, and at least one family, she knows, doesn’t have enough food. “They are worried about their kids. They said to me: ‘How is he going to learn?’ I told them, ‘we are going to take care of you.’” Guzman is making home visits to some of these families, bringing clothing and school supplies and showing families how to download apps.

Because young children learn through relationships and interactions with adults in their lives, distance learning is almost an oxymoron. Administrators and teachers are struggling to figure out how to conduct distance learning for the youngest children in the state without a lot of specific guidance. (California did provide some broad guidance in a bulletin on April 17th).

LaWanda Wesley, the director of quality enhancement and professional development in early childhood for the Oakland Unified School District, said many families in Oakland lack access to the internet (as many as 17,000 children by some estimates). So Wesley and her colleagues have created activity packets in multiple languages that are being mailed to families. Preschool packets include suggestions for play-based activities, early literacy and math lessons. The packets include QR codes for those with only mobile phones at home to easily access online content. But they are also emphasizing offline activities.

“We hope families will put on a scarf and dance and let children spend time chatting with others,” Wesley said.

They try to be sensitive to the families’ realities during the crisis. With food scarcity a real concern for many, Wesley avoids a common way to teach counting—with food—for example. “This is not a time where families are going to want to count beans to support mathematics.”

Scott Merrill teaches transitional kindergarten in a dual-immersion Spanish program at Ewing Elementary in Fresno. To support his four- and five-year-olds, he created a google website (http://fresnotkdi.org/) that includes daily activities drawn from their Creative Curriculum (recycling and insects were recent topics, for example), with pictures and instructions for parents in both Spanish and English. The site also includes videos of reading aloud, math lessons, P.E. and suggestions for online activities developmentally appropriate for four- and five-year-olds.

He also has been hosting twice-weekly Zoom meetings for students and twice-weekly meetings for parents who want to chat and ask questions.

“The first time was happy chaos,” Merrill says of video conferencing with children so young. He has to work with his students on understanding the expectations of video conferencing, not all shouting at once for example. Keeping children’s attention is a challenge.

Zoom is helpful, he says, but he also worries that those families able to attend the Zoom meetings are only the more affluent parents, he said. He has had less contact with the working-class children since school has been cancelled. Some may be with grandparents during the day while their parents work, he said, or with older siblings.

Maranatha Hosick, a state preschool teacher in Oakland, said that her focus with distance learning is on children’s well-being. “What I’ve really been doing is zoning in on what is happening right now and how kids are feeling about it,” she said. “I want to let them feel connected to me and to their friends.”

Hosick sends a daily email and has been making YouTube videos for her students to watch at home. One video, for example, explains the now ubiquitous face masks.

“I went for a run and noticed a little girl look at me in fear because I was wearing a mask,” she said. “So I made a video about wearing face masks so that children can better understand why people wear them and hopefully not feel afraid.”

Hosick knows students are watching. She hears often from parents who tell her the videos are comforting to her students. Watch one family dance to a phonics video below:

She is also delivering supplies to students who need them. She brought markers, Playdough and kinetic sand to one student who is living with his family in a hotel in Union City.

Hosick said she is also working to individualize teaching. Some students have a harder time connecting during Zoom calls or may feel shy.

“I made sure to let them know it’s OK,” she said. “I also send personal messages in the form of a personal video and tell them it’s ok to be shy, especially with something we’re not used to. With one little girl, we made up a secret hello so I could say hello to her without calling her out in front of the class.” ️

Like many things during this pandemic, teaching preschool online is far from ideal. Teachers can help support families with ideas for offline creative play and strategies for helping to respond to children’s feelings and fears during this crisis. But particularly for the youngest learners—who learn through the serve and return of their daily interactions with the trusted adults in their lives—staying connected to their teachers can be a real comfort.

For more stories about overcoming the challenges of COVID-19, check out New America’s Strengthening Child Care and Early Education: Learning from COVID-19 page.

For more stories about overcoming the challenges of COVID-19, check out New America’s Strengthening Child Care and Early Education: Learning from COVID-19 page.

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