By Molly Breen
January is traditionally a month when we take inventory and prepare for a fresh start. We organize our storage spaces, toss out or recycle the things we no longer need, and evaluate whether the items we put in our “keep” piles are useful or practical. And this is true with our teaching approaches too! As educators, we reflect on what is working and what isn’t, and we tweak and refine our pedagogy to best serve our students and prevent burnout in the New Year.
As we turn the page on 2020, however, I am feeling less “fresh start” and more reflective about what we have learned from the pandemic so far—much of which I plan to carry with me as a teacher and embed in our program’s plans for the future. As widely available immunizations are just becoming perceptible way out ahead on the horizon, I can’t help but think about these past months of pandemic teaching and learning with some sense of nostalgia (too soon?): small groups, simplified program plans, more time spent outdoors, compassionate staff and families who work together for the greater good . . . these are all things that are staying in my keep pile for sure! When it comes to this new year and, with some degree of certitude, vaccines for one and all, what will YOU keep from this pandemic year, and what will you get rid of?
Like many of you at the start of the pandemic in the United States, I thought we might be out of school for a week or two as the medical community and our local and national governments figured out next steps to contain the spread of COVID-19. Teachers from my program were excited for a longer spring break, and I did my best to temper their enthusiasm with pragmatic words like, “We’ll see,” while secretly holding optimism that it would be only a couple days—a long weekend. That was on March 17. Fast-forward to our preschool graduation at the end of May, done over Zoom with a puppet theater–style stage and tiny full-body photos of each graduate on popsicle sticks marching over the rainbow arch from preschool to kindergarten. The months before were spent in iterative versions of online preschool while our state, like so many others, weathered stay-at-home orders that seemed to extend interminably.
While many centers were able to remain open during those first months of stay-at-home orders around the country, we opted to use that time for piloting a preschool-style remote learning plan (fashion shows, dance parties, science experiments, lunchtime read alouds, and so on). Over the summer, we converted our spaces into standalone classrooms (we have always shared our rooms, so this took a lot of redesign and new materials), added a classroom, and designated hallways and bathrooms for specified use to restrict pod and teacher interaction. Our enrollment plummeted but then rebounded with “high fives” (kids who waited for kindergarten due to online learning), and we landed in September with a hopeful group of kids, families, and teachers who were ready to commit to some major lifestyle adjustments so children could attend in-person learning.
Another major adjustment to our program plan, aside from the podding and physical changes in our building, was to make outdoor learning a primary classroom. We purchased utility wagons, composting toilets, and pop-up latrine tents; we received donations of frame packs so teachers could take indoor materials outdoors; and we collaborated in our teaching teams to find neighborhood areas that would be good and safe for urban adventuring. At our program, we have always prioritized plenty of outdoor time for play and learning, but we truly reconceptualized the outdoors as our best classroom. Although we are in the middle of a city, we are fortunate to have lots of green spaces to explore, but we still had to get creative and expand our definition (and walking radius) of safe outdoor exploration to include a nearby University campus, a community-tended mountain bike track in a drainage ditch, and other unconventional spaces. Public playgrounds were off-limits, but after some initial disappointment, our students adapted to find genuine joy in the adventure “playgrounds” of our community spaces.
A key feature to the success of our pandemic program plan was family participation. No, it wasn’t participation in the typical way we might imagine: no family events, no parents in the building even! Instead, family participation this year meant that families agreed to avoid any unnecessary social gathering—even with the ones they love the most. It meant reporting symptoms of or close-contact with COVID-19, and an enduring flexibility to keep kids home until they had a negative COVID test or clearance from a physician. Instead of dropping kids off at the door (which can be hard for kids—and parents), we provided a fun and developmental “walking school bus” so our preschoolers could join friends and teachers at a designated “bus stop” and then walk into school together. We added a communication app so that all families could easily communicate with the school and the teachers and so that teachers could easily load daily reports and photos, and share important reminders; in some ways this has provided even greater connection with families than in typical circumstances. Like our families, our teachers also made sacrifices in this regard and took every precaution for safe sanitizing, masking, and reporting illness.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we changed nearly everything about our program to accommodate all of the provisions required for safe learning during the pandemic. And it was worth it! To date, we have been healthy and COVID-free and we’ve also learned about our own resilience. As they say, sometimes crisis compels positive change. Although it may be too soon to tell, I predict that we will retain some of our program changes post-pandemic: the increased time spent outside, smaller groups, and a commitment to relationships over program perfection (whatever that means), plus increased daily communication with families. And, arguably, we will all be transformed by this pandemic time, we might all emerge with a renewed commitment to care for one another and know that, indeed, we belong to one another. At this moment of transition to the new year, the hoped-for fresh start, and as we make our attempts to organize those things we wish to keep, toss, or give away, I will be happy to leave behind the isolation and separation and fear of the pandemic. But I urge early childhood practitioners everywhere to consider the silver linings of this time . . . and to put them in the keep pile.
Molly Breen, M.A., E.C.E., has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.
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