From Zoom screens to new routines: Preschool teachers strive to keep children engaged

Throughout the current school year, educators everywhere felt the impacts and pressures of returning to the classroom in the wake of a global pandemic. Group activities are obsolete, remote work is common, and lesson plans have been modified.

For teachers of preschool-aged children, dealing with all these changes – in addition to the responsibility of 10 young kids – is anything but easy.

“As teachers, we have to adapt to how the students feel,” said Alivia Pimental, a student employee at the Early Childhood Education Center. “Making sure they feel comfortable and that they’re socially distanced … has been a little difficult for me and the other teachers, but we’re handling it pretty well.”

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Pimental, who has worked in the preschool classroom for four years now, said adjusting to the new normal is a challenge not only for teachers, but students as well.

“The kids always gravitate toward each other and want to play, so it’s been difficult for them,” she said. “They’re little kids – they love to talk to each other.”

Before COVID-19, Pimental said group activities were once a staple of the classroom environment. “Now, since the students have to be socially distanced, it’s kind of hard to sit them down at the same group and do these lesson plans,” she said.

Cara Chase, the lead teacher and assistant director at the Early Childhood Education Center, said she was “optimistic, but also cautious” about returning to the classroom for in-person learning this school year.

“We were really building the plane as we were flying it,” Chase said. “The way that we teach [now] is completely different from what we were used to.”

Julie Wilson, the lead teacher and assistant director at the Child Development Lab, agreed. She said one of the biggest changes this year was the loss of common areas – such as the writing, art, and math centers.

In the past, children were able to move around among these centers and interact with each other. “Now, they have to do those activities at their seat,” Wilson said.

Without being able to directly interact or play together, Wilson said children “haven’t really been able to learn” how to take turns and share with each other this year.

Each day, children are assigned a seat at least 6-feet apart from their classmates. Toys and writing materials are brought to them in personalized bins, and then wiped down and sanitized after each use.

“Sometimes, they get to choose certain things that go into their bins,” Pimental said. “It’s nice – but it’s just different.”

No stranger to teaching preschool, Wilson is in her fifth year at FSU, but said it took “half the school year” just to figure out which methods would work best due to the new guidelines and regulations.

“This is my hardest year ever,” Wilson admitted. “Even harder than my first year teaching.”

In addition to creating new lesson plans, Chase said preschool teachers have also been worried about the children.

“It’s a heavy burden to carry to know that we’re responsible for the safety, health, and wellbeing of the 10 children we care for on a daily basis,” she said.

“The toughest part … is having to make decisions for the children,” Chase added, explaining how teachers can no longer afford to overlook seasonal allergies or common colds, as either one could be a COVID-19 symptom. “I think that weighs heavy on everyone.”

Upon first returning to the classroom, Chase said it was difficult for some children to stay socially distanced and not “run over to give their classmate a hug.” However, the children do understand what COVID-19 is and realize it’s part of their day-to-day lives – commonly referring to it as “the virus.

“They’ll say to each other, ‘When the virus is over, you’re gonna come over to my house and we’re gonna play,’” Chase said. “So, it is part of their norm. I think families did a really good job talking to the children about COVID.”

By now, all the children are used to wearing facial coverings and keep them on all day unless they request a mask break.

“It’s funny – you see them in the classroom, and they sit down for snack and sometimes they forget they’re wearing their mask … and they’ll try to put food right through it,” Chase said with a laugh. “It’s just like wearing a jacket or their clothes to school.”

Wilson also said while the children have been “really good” about wearing masks, sometimes it’s difficult to understand what they’re saying.

“I didn’t realize how much I relied on reading lips,” she said. “Kids this young, you have a hard time understanding them anyways because some of them are learning how to speak still.

“The masks muffle their sound a lot,” she added.

With her youngest student being 2 years and 9 months old, Wilson was proud to note even “the little ones” are good at following the new set of classroom rules.

Before reopening the preschools in August, teachers helped Valerie Hytholt, director of the Centers for Early Childhood Education, develop a 40-page-long “playbook” consisting of COVID-19-friendly guidelines and regulations.

According to Hytholt, this reopening plan needed to be approved by state licensure. Regulators frequently check in via Zoom to ensure the classrooms are following the outlined plan.

When children arrive for school, their backpacks, lunchboxes, and workspaces are wiped down with a disinfectant wipe.

Drop-off and pick-up times have also been staggered and are unique for each child. “We had to assign each family a specific … time and try to keep them 10 minutes apart,” Hytholt said.

Additionally, employees at both centers are tested for COVID-19 weekly and parents must sign an attestation form stating their children are free of any symptoms.

Furthermore, Hytholt said children “constantly” wash their hands during the day, including before and after eating, as well as after playing with toys.

“Throughout the day, the teachers … are disinfecting the toys,” Hytholt said. “Materials also have to be prepared differently, because children can’t share materials.”

Chase said without group activities, she noticed how important they were for some students.

“There might be a child who isn’t really interested in writing or coloring … but when you have seven children sitting around a table interacting with each other and laughing, playing, and writing – it becomes a very fun activity,” she said. “That has been removed from the classroom this year, which I think makes it hard for children to have a varied interest level of certain things.”

Rather than encouraging interaction among the children, teachers are now expected to keep them separated. “I wouldn’t call it social distance, because for preschoolers, it’s like anti-social,” Hytholt said.

“They’ve lost out on a year of play, and children do need to learn how to play with each other,” she added. “This year, they had to relearn what it meant to play in a classroom.”

When both preschool centers were forced to abruptly close last March, Chase said teachers were “scrambling” to figure out how they could stay connected with children and their families.

“We very quickly put together a remote-learning program that offered a few Zooms a day,” Chase said. This included “lunch bunches,” read alouds, dance parties, and music classes.

Wilson said these programs were taught during two or three half-hour long Zoom calls each day, including meetings in the evenings so parents who were still working could attend.

“It wasn’t necessarily hard to keep them [students] engaged, but it was hard to keep them on track because they all just wanted to talk at once,” Wilson said.

Chase agreed. By keeping Zoom sessions short and interactive, she said children stayed engaged and attentive throughout.

“To be honest, I think the children were just so excited to see one another even though it was on the computer,” she said.

Although Zoom was a helpful alternative to being in the classroom together, Chase is happy to be back teaching in person.

“There’s nothing like being in a classroom and being able to work with the children, see their development, and watch them grow throughout the year,” she said. “It feels good that we’ve been able to do this for the whole year and we have been successful.”

Before students came back to the classroom, Hytholt said it was important for both them and their parents to be comfortable returning. In order to do so, all parents were required to attend mandatory workshops, which helped them manage “children’s schedules, work, and everything at home.”

Hytholt said she is “hoping” to return to normal soon. “My guess is we’ll be almost back to normal next fall.”

Since the pandemic, enrollment at both preschool centers is down, Hytholt said.

Before COVID-19, at least 18 to 19 children were enrolled in each center. Now, classroom capacity has been reduced to a maximum of 10 children, two teachers, and one student employee.

This makes it impossible for early childhood field-study students – who were once engaging daily with students in the classroom – to gain the hands-on experience they normally would.

“We had to develop a virtual platform the best we could over Zoom to engage the field-study students to get their hours and practice,” Hytholt said.

In order to communicate with children in the classrooms, field-study students are projected onto a screen where they give the preschool students a task to complete. Teachers then walk around the room with an iPad, filming the children and their work to show the field-study students.

Before participating in these virtual lessons, Hytholt noted all children must get permission from their parents.

She said it’s been “quite a learning experience” figuring out how to make a virtual field study meaningful for both college students and children, and admitted it’s still not the same as it once was.

At first, Hytholt said children were shy because they didn’t know the field-study students.

“Some children love the attention and that they can see themselves on Zoom,” Hytholt said. “Other children were leery about talking to someone they didn’t know. There is a difference in communication like this.”

But as time went on, most children became increasingly comfortable with the field-study students. “They’re Zooming and talking to the college students every day. That has really changed the interaction,” Hytholt added.

Without the field-study students in the classroom, Wilson said teachers are impacted tremendously because they’ve lost an “extra set of hands.

“We’re not getting the same help that we would get,” Wilson said, explaining how the reduced classroom capacity affected staffing. “This year, I only had my co-teacher for part of the time because she had taken some leave.”

Student employees such as Pimental have been a huge help this year, as “they’re really an assistant to the teachers,” Hytholt said.

Pimental works Monday through Friday at the Early Childhood Education Center and does everything from cleaning surfaces and disinfecting toys, to helping out with snack time and preparing materials for children.

She said the most rewarding part of teaching in a preschool classroom is “definitely” the children’s attitudes.

“They just always make me feel so happy if I’m having a bad day or I’m in a bad mood,” Pimental said. “Every time I go in there, they’re so full of joy – they just make me feel good.”

Chase agreed. She also said the opportunity to work with children and their families makes her “feel good.

“We have a wonderful group of families here and they’re so appreciative,” Chase said. “It’s been a tough year and a half for a lot of families.”

Despite so many guidelines and regulations, Wilson said it seems as if her students are enjoying their time in the classroom.

“I became a teacher because I want kids to love coming to school,” she said.

Wilson said comments from children such as, “I’m so happy I can come to school” and, “This is the best year ever” make her job worth it.

“I’m thinking in the back of my head, ‘I’m so happy you think this is the best year ever, because really, it’s not been the best year ever,’” she added. “‘But if you think it is, that means I’m doing something right.’”