This story was originally published by the New Haven Independent.
When Careene Stephenson broke the news to her 4-year-old son Aiden Palmer that his in-person preschool classes would not start this November after all, he asked, “No school? No friends?”
Stephenson had to explain that he would continue to attend Augusta Lewis Troup School online. He could see his preschool friends on Google Meets.
“What I want for him is for school to be open. He’s an only child and he’s home every day, apart from when we take him to the park. I know he misses school,” Stephenson said.
The New Haven Public Schools Board of Education decided this August to start the fall with 10 weeks of remote classes. The 10-week deadline was almost up when a spike in Covid-19 cases pushed the school district past its threshold for safe in-person classes. The school system decided to delay its plans for a hybrid of remote and in-person classes indefinitely.
Stephenson wants her son to be safe. While she thinks Aiden would likely learn more in-person, she is happy with his learning pace online. The big piece she sees him missing is social time at school.
“The online learning is OK so far. I don’t have a problem with it. It’s just the interaction I miss for him,” she said.
How To Keep A Preschooler Onscreen
It was Aiden’s last class of the day. His teacher, Shandra Patton, planned to read The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds out loud to her squirming chages.
She waited for each of her preschoolers to join her on screen. One little girl was working on the day’s science experiment, making homemade Play-Doh, with her brother, father and uncle.
When Aiden logged on, Patton reminded him to put on his mask. Patton has been practicing wearing masks with her preschoolers to prepare for a return to in-person classes.
“Over your nose a little bit, babe,” she told him.
Patton then asked all of her students to clap 10 times with her. The class was working on the number 10 all week, so each time they clapped, they counted to 10. The screen flashed between Patton and Aiden as he clapped and counted half a second behind her.
These routines are part of Patton’s secret. Her students know to expect to talk about the weather first thing in the morning and then pull the letter of the day out of a “magic” unicorn hat. Aiden recently asked her whether she was going to pull out the letter before she had even brought out the hat.
“Aiden Palmer, do you want to read the title?” Patton asked.
“I don’t know it,” he squeaked. “The…”
“The. Dot,” Patton said, pointing to each word.
Patton then asked the class to identify the shape on the front cover of the picture book, tracing its outline with her finger.
Aiden announced that the shape was a circle. He picked up a clear plastic bag of Fruit Loops and held it up to the screen.
“Yes, like the cereal you got in your resource box! That’s why I’m reading this,” Patton agreed.
Patton drops off learning materials for her students at each of their homes. The boxes help her tailor the lessons to the different ages, skill levels and interests of her students. She packs an extra box of markers for the student who would rather paint the letter “j” than use a pen or pencil.
She gives Aiden extra books and an extra math puzzle.
Aiden started preschool in New Haven midway through last year. At that point, he didn’t know how to read. His mother only realized that he had acquired the skill when he started reading out the signs of every store they drove by. Another time, he picked up her phone and read out a notification to her.
Recently, Patton realized that Aiden was signing in and out of Google Classroom himself.
The pace that he has passed these development checkpoints has amazed Patton.
“I am almost 100 percent sure that is his mom and dad constantly reading to him and him constantly having access to books,” Patton said. “It’s not a matter of him memorizing. He doesn’t have all the books that I read.”
Stephenson said that she has been reading with Aiden, partially thanks to Patton’s encouragement.
Patton also encourages Aiden to read out the titles of each book she reads to the class. When he models the reading skill for the others, they get more excited too.
“Aiden is very social online. That’s drawing in the other children,” Patton said.
As Patton read out The Dot, Aiden continued playing with the ziplock bag of cereal. He was also listening.
Patton described the frustration of the main character, Vashti, and her feeling that she couldn’t draw in art class. Her art teacher encouraged her to make one mark on the paper – the character chose to make a dot – and then asked her to sign it.
“I can sign my name,” Patton said, reading Vashti’s dialogue.
“Sign my name,” Aiden repeated to himself.
“Just like you do on your artwork,” Patton told him.
The reading continued this way. Aiden would occasionally repeat a line or answer Patton’s questions. That shape is a round shape. Yes, he could see two characters having a conversation in the picture. There are one, two, three circles in that picture.
The other students were quieter. The little girl and her father had finished making pink Play-Doh. She kept her hands firmly smashed on the dough and her eyes on the screen.
The noise level started escalating after Patton closed The Dot and gave her preschoolers instructions about their next assignment. Each student seemed more interested in family members or their own wiggles and noises. Aiden, for his part, was making faces into the screen and improvising his own song.
Patton brought the group back together with a song all knew, “Open, Shut Them.” She started with a slow version. By the time she started the song again at normal speed, Aiden and the other students were clapping and doing the song’s hand motions too.
One student was singing the song upside down over his computer camera. Aiden giggled uncontrollably at the last line of the song each time.
Finally, Patton ended the class with another round of 10 claps and told them all to go play.
“I want you to get outside and have a good time. Run around,” she said.
She thanked the little girl’s family members for helping with the Play-Doh experiment and waved bye to her students. Aiden waved his hand vigorously, along with his whole upper body.
“That Just Means We’re Super Ready”
Patton had been readying her students to return to hybrid mode for weeks.
Five of her six students were planning to come back to in-person classes four days a week, per the hybrid schedule for students in third grade and under.
In a normal year, Patton would have 20 students in her class. She thinks the lack of in-person registration and advertising has made a dent in the enrollment. She also knows families that have simply chosen in-person daycare instead of remote preschool so they can go to work.
Most of Patton’s students have one of their parents at home during their classes, she said.
Aiden’s father, Patrick Palmer, has worked from home with Aiden while Stephenson works sometimes 12-hour shifts with Medtronic, a medical manufacturing company. The situation will likely change in January, when Palmer may need to go to work in person again. Stephenson will set up a babysitter in that case.
The parent of one of Aiden’s classmates has to leave her children with a babysitter while she goes to work. She texts Patton on those days to make sure they have logged on. That parent is considering whether to pay for daycare and have her children learn remotely from there.
All of the students’ parents agreed weeks ago that their preschoolers needed to practice wearing masks. First the kids wore their masks during the morning meeting, the first class of the day. Every three days Patton added another mask period until the preschoolers could wear their masks for the whole day.
Patton’s classroom was ready too. She said that the Troup custodians have been working on Sundays to set up a pandemic-ready space.
“We came in on a Monday and all the furniture was marked on the floor. The tables were distanced properly. Our custodians were awesome,” Patton said.
She worked with the nonprofit Seedlings Foundation to get individual sets of the learning materials normally shared between students, like blocks and art supplies.
“We made a lot of modifications, so we wanted to see it work. That just means we’re super ready when [it is safe],” Patton said. “Health and safety before everything.”