Haring Center

December 15, 2020

Teaching Through a Pandemic

Plexiglass barriers. A classroom with two students. Physical therapy through a computer screen. This is just another day at the Haring Center’s Experimental Education Unit (EEU), which is offering a hybrid learning model this school year.

Preschool and Kindergarten students come to the EEU two days a week, either Mondays and Tuesdays or Thursdays and Fridays. Learners who qualify for the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program can attend all four in-person instruction days. All Preschool and Kindergarten families have the ongoing option to learn exclusively remotely, which some have elected to do.

Younger students in the Infant and Toddler Program learn entirely remotely. “We believe it would be extremely difficult for children under the age of three to maintain physical distancing in a group setting,” explains Chris Matsumoto, EEU principal and Haring Center assistant director.

The EEU has been able to provide remote students with devices as one measure to address the educational inequities which have been intensified by the pandemic.

Of course, school at the EEU is more than just the classroom. Many students receive related services, such as physical, occupational or speech-language therapy.

As with classroom learning, there are no in-person related services for the birth-to-three age group. Whitney Gregory, a physical therapist at the EEU, describes how she uses an example baby doll to teach positioning to parents during one-on-one virtual sessions.

Gregory sees her preschool age group individually at recess or during gym time. “Preschoolers can participate and follow directions, and they want to play games,” she explains. “I craft creative ways to get them to practice things like balancing on one foot — we do animal yoga, all sorts of things.”

Families who have elected to learn entirely remotely also receive their related services virtually, in one-on-one sessions.

“Things are obviously different from years past,” says LaShondra Hayes, an instructional assistant in a preschool classroom at the EEU. “Some of these children don’t have siblings so have gone months without interacting with other kids.”

Taylor Johnson, an EEU preschool head teacher, agrees that families are facing different difficulties. “Some families have more than one child at home, some have only one child at home. Some have a child balancing three different outside therapies as well as school, some have a child going to a school setting outside of the EEU, some have their child at home with them all day every day while both parents are trying to work,” says Johnson. “Customizing things for each family has been an added challenge, but will turn into a long-term benefit of this experience.”

Johnson also explains that EEU teachers are working to ensure activities are not a burden on families, both in terms of time and materials.

“We’re working toward ensuring equity through access, and also instructional quality,” says Johnson. “With the hybrid model, we are thinking about how we provide instruction equally to students attending in-person and students who are one hundred percent remote, in addition to making sure we don’t repeat material for kids coming four days a week.”

Gregory notes that the biggest challenge as a physical therapist this year is the limited time with children.

“The high degree of repetition is what really makes a difference with children. We could do that last year, for example practicing stairs every day when a child gets off the bus,” she says. “Only being able to see them once a week this year makes it very difficult.”

Gregory also explains that many of the goals she works on with students involve group-based practice, which is hard to find this year due to much smaller class sizes. “In a normal world, we might practice balance while a crowd is around a student during a game, or use sports at recess. But it’s hard to set up a soccer or kickball game when there are only three kids.”

“As a physical therapist, I’m usually very close to children as I help them climb or go up and down stairs,” Gregory continues. “It’s difficult to work on those skills without being physically close.”

Challenges EEU staff face this year include not only those during remote and in-person school, but also those from the outside world. For example, many teachers’ own family schedules have changed.

“I have to pick up my son much earlier than in past years,” says Hayes. “And that means I no longer have time to debrief with the other teachers at the end of the day because I have to rush out to pick him up.”

Despite everything, staff at the EEU point out silver linings and valuable lessons learned.

“A phenomenal difference is how we can really focus on establishing interpersonal relationships with our kids thanks to the smaller class sizes,” says Hayes. “We don’t get the same bond when we have a class of sixteen students.”

Johnson describes how this year has induced much stronger collaboration with families.

“Families are our partners, and this year their role in the partnership is much bigger than before,” she says. “It’s been really rewarding to hear families say how excited they are to be a part of the teaching. We just did a unit on taking care of clothes, and families have expressed how meaningful it’s been to engage with the curriculum, whether that is washing a piece of clothing with their child or using a snack talk we’ve sent home at dinner to talk about clothes.”

Gregory explains that she has been able to interact with parents and caregivers much more than in previous years, and that the carry-over of physical therapy practice to home is much higher as a result.

“It’s been great to get a peek into what life is like at home,” she says. “I can see how a kid climbs onto their couch, while talking with their parents.”

“Another rejuvenating thing for our team is hearing how much our students are excited to be a part of the classroom community,” says Johnson. “We do a daily check-in at the start and end of each day in our classroom. The last three weeks, we’ve always had kids who say they’re upset that school is over. It’s been really lovely to see the honesty with which they’re sharing their feelings and emotions.”

According to Hayes, the gratitude shown by families given all they are going through pushes her to continue finding ways to support children at the EEU.

“Seeing a smile on a kid’s face after they had a complete disaster at snack time — sometimes we might want to give up, but we keep going,” she says. “I’ll be back tomorrow, because that smile right there says a lot.”