Seedlings have sprouted across the Woods Hole Child Center playground. The busy feet of children at play would normally deter their growth, but with school closures stretching from mid-March to the end of the school year, the playground has been free of the characteristic exploration of young minds, the digging and sandcastle building, the games of cops and robbers, the running and jumping. Safe from the boisterous imaginations of toddlers, the seedlings’ roots have taken hold.
School closures have meant not only that districts have postponed graduations and the Class of 2020 has missed out on the last moments of high school, but also that the region’s preschoolers have been sent home midway through their first years of formalized education—their introduction to the idea of what school is.
Nonetheless, preschool teachers across the Upper Cape have seen resilience in their students as curricula have moved into virtual spaces.
Anne Clarkin, director and teacher at the Woods Hole Child Center, said she remained hopeful in the first weeks of the closure that after a brief hiatus school would resume, but when the closure was extended she developed plans to run “circle time” through Zoom.
She said that the Zoom circle times give students an opportunity to continue their connection to one another, as well as to her.
The regular circle-time activities have been transferred into this virtual space, such as talking about the weather and the calendar, singing a song or two, and reading stories, Ms. Clarkin said.
At one circle time, she said, a student was even able to share recently hatched chicks with her classmates.
Although much of the socialization that comes with the daily play-filled life in preschool cannot be transferred into virtual space, Ms. Clarkin said her faith in children allows her to have confidence that her young students continue along their developmental paths.
“Young children are generally very resilient as long as they’re treated with a little bit of love,” she said.
Susan Kelliher, a teacher at Sandwich Integrated Preschool, said she has been “astounded” at how well her 15 students have handled the transition to life during the pandemic.
Each day, Ms. Kelliher sends a video to her students, a message, she said, “that their teacher still cares about them and that [she’s] still a presence in their life.” In addition, she leaves optional workbook pages for the students in a box in her front yard.
Twice during each week, Ms. Kelliher hosts a “Zoom share” with her students and watches them learn to manage the logistics of virtual communication. She said she “feels confident that they are still engaging and want to engage in this very difficult platform.”
Ms. Kelliher said her students do not see the ongoing pandemic as a crisis because their parents are “the focus of their world.”
“Absolutely everything about them is endearing and optimistic, and this has not tainted that outlook,” she said.
Ms. Clarkin has seen similar attitudes from her students.
“They are in the moment and they enjoy what they’re doing,” she said.
Kelly Mooney, student services director and early childhood coordinator at Bournedale Elementary School in Bourne, said that preschool students continue to engage with their teachers and other support personnel through small groups, circle times and direct services in virtual platforms such as Zoom and Google Meet.
She said the transition to virtual schooling was “amazing” and that the district’s preschool teachers “immediately embraced” remote learning.
The routines of the regular school day are more easily replicated in virtual space than the unstructured moments of free play that occur throughout the day, she said. To replicate these parts of the day, teachers are providing activities to families that children can do without direct guidance from a teacher.
Paul LaBelle, principal of the K.C. Coombs School in Mashpee, which serves students from preschool to 2nd grade, said that in the initial moments of the school closure he felt as though he was building an airplane as he flew it, but as time has passed the teachers and staff have “found their groove.”
The school now offers a hybrid method of education, through virtual means such as Google Hangouts, Google Classroom, and a platform for content sharing called Seesaw, as well as through packets of material sent home to students.
Mr. LaBelle said he has tried to keep many of the regular school routines in place through virtual means, such as daily morning and birthday announcements, adding that teachers have been “absolutely phenomenal” in creating new learning experiences.
While families and teachers are doing as much as they can while balancing many other priorities, whatever educational experiences that young students can have right now are good, the principal said.
However, a lot about human interaction is lost when transferred from real space into virtual space. Young children use these interactions to understand how to communicate with and be kind to their peers, Mr. LaBelle said, and students might be missing out on many nuances of human communication in the “two-dimensional experience” of virtual class time.
“If you think about when you meet someone for the first time, [you see] all the nuances of body movements, facial expressions. You don’t see a lot of little movements or things that you pick up with someone’s voice in virtual [meetings],” he said.
In addition, Mr. LaBelle said students learn a lot simply by observing each other at their desks in a classroom—an experience that cannot be recreated online.
“It only gets you so deep,” he said.
Mr. LaBelle said he expects the closure to produce developmental gaps for some students, but he is not yet sure where those gaps will be. Still, he has hope in the resilience of children and power of the Mashpee school community.
“I think kids are resilient. Particularly if they’re in a supportive environment. I know this town will rally, and that gives me a lot of hope,” he said.