Hawaii’s public preschoolers have not had in-person classes since mid-March due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Instead, teachers have been using both take-home resource packets and the internet to continue to teach the state’s youngest learners. But there's a key part of early learning that's been lost.
Waialua Elementary Preschool teacher Yvette Paglinawan split her class of 20, four-to-five-year-olds into small groups. They each meet online twice a week, and then Paglinawan holds one big class for everyone once a week.
Together online they sing songs, share their feelings and play games, like scavenger hunt. Paglinawan will ask the children to find items in their homes that start with certain letters of the alphabet.
For the children who may not have reliable internet or access to materials, she handed out learning packets, including art supplies and books. While some supplies are from her classroom, she thinks she has easily spent over $250 of her own money this year on her students.
It's an expense for a good purpose, but Paglinawan said preschool is more than just learning the alphabet and how to count. It’s more importantly about social and emotional development, which Paglinawan has found difficult teaching through a screen.
“It's hard for a child to learn how to share something when nobody else is there to share it with them, right?” she said. “Because there's that conflict. They have to negotiate with other kids, but if it's just you at home distance learning, you can't get that.”
She compares it to teaching someone how to ride a bike by showing it to them rather than allowing them to get on one and practicing.
Dolores Brockman, an experienced state teacher who provides other educators with resources and advice, explained that peer-to-peer social interactions are lost during distance learning.
“I can't overemphasize how significant that is with this age group,” she said. “It's so important for their brain development. They learn so much when they're doing it with others. It's so different than just an adult telling them what to do.
"The teacher’s role is setting the stage for that to happen. So they're missing that piece in the classroom, building that autonomy and that ability to say, ‘Oh, I can do this.’”
Steve Barnett, the co-founder of the National Institute of Early Education Research agrees. He noted that it is very different teaching a child how to learn and building a foundation rather than using it to teach a child more knowledge.
“It's about learning to control emotions. It's about learning how to pay attention,” he said. “This isn’t a matter of obedience or disobedience, as opposed to a skill they need to learn.”
His group has documented the good quality of Hawaii's public preschool program. Hawaii ranks 10th in the nation when it comes to quality, meeting 8 out of the research organization’s 10 benchmarks.
But Barnett said because Hawaii does not have a standardized readiness survey for those entering kindergarten, the only way it can evaluate the impact of COVID-19 on preschoolers will be to ask their parents.
Paglinawan said that's one positive aspect of distance learning -- she's having more in-depth conversations with students' parents.
“I feel like we're getting out more resources to the parents with social distance learning because we have to,” she said.
“It's nice to be able to share what we do in the classroom with them, and to explain to them, this is why we're doing this. It helps them develop in this [way] . . . Otherwise, some parents will just drop their kids off, and pick them up and then there would be not deep conversations about what they did throughout the day.”
A continuing concern for many teachers is the number of students who are not engaging in distance learning classes. The Department of Education has not been able to say how many students have missed the teaching while the schools have shut down.
Out of her 20 students, only about 13 regularly show up, Paglinawan said. Another five come about once a week. The teacher suspects it’s because distance learning at the preschool level heavily relies on adult supervision.
“I know that those are the parents that still have to go to work, and the kids have to stay home with their grandparents or their aunties and uncles,” she said. “I find that the ones who are not logging on, those are the ones [whose parents] are still working outside of home.”
There's an educational and emotional impact from this missed learning.
Brockman thinks kindergarten teachers will need to be patient with these children come fall as preschoolers move on to the next grade.
“We don’t know what kind of emotional feelings kids will come with. Because they didn't get to say goodbye. They didn't have closure with their pre-K year,” she said. “That may seem unnecessary, but for many kids, their pre-K teacher was their first teacher. They really bonded with their teacher and they bonded with their playmates.”
The Department of Education hasn’t announced what classes for preschoolers will look like in the fall.
However, Kuulei Kaluhiokalani, another state resource teacher like Brockman, explained that the bonds the students forged while they were together were integral to distance learning working at all.
“The teachers have all said, if we hadn't already had really great establish relationships with our children prior to this, they're not sure how well this would work,” she said.
"...The children are getting on and talking to their friends, asking questions and feeling comfortable to do that, because they're familiar. If you had to start out from scratch, getting to know them and helping them build a classroom community without actually being together here, [it] could be really difficult.”
Until in-person classes resume, parents and caregivers can serve as substitute teachers and give their children as many opportunities to learn as they can. Here is a list of tips from the educators in this story:
Have your child participate in household chores with you like cooking a simple meal or doing the laundry.
Do art projects together.
Go for a walk in the park.
Have conversations with your child to build questioning and understanding skills.
Try to maintain a schedule.