What does preschool look like during a pandemic? Socially distant play, temperature checks and …

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Jackie Simon sings with her 2-year-old students at HeadsUp preschool in Palo Alto on April 30. The students are each sitting on a taped marker that helps them remember the distance they have to keep from one another. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

At the start of the school day at HeadsUp preschool in Palo Alto, there’s no longer the typical rush of parents holding young children’s hands, walking them into their classrooms to get them settled and talk to their teachers.

Parents must wear masks and use a separate entrance. Children must stop and rub their tiny shoes on a new sanitizing mat, soaked in disinfectant, before coming inside. An escort takes them to their classroom where they immediately wash their hands and find their assigned seat, a safe distance from their peers. Starting this week, anyone who comes to the preschool — parents, children, staff, visitors — will first have their temperature checked and recorded. Anyone with a fever won’t be allowed inside until they’re symptom free or they test negative for COVID-19.

HeadsUp on Bayshore Road is among the local preschools that have been allowed to remain open during the shutdown to provide child care to parents who are working essential jobs as health care personnel and first responders. For this Montessori preschool, staying open during the coronavirus crisis has meant a total reimagining of how the school functions, from the new health and safety precautions to offering online instruction for the very first time.

“Just putting anything online for Montessori was an adaptation for us,” said Kimberley Kostepen, director of HeadsUp Palo Alto. “We feel that children learn by doing. The hand is the tool for the mind. We want them engaged in movement and using their bodies to learn.”

So what do you do when those bodies must stay 6 feet apart, or are not even in the physical classroom?

HeadsUp has served infants through kindergartners in Palo Alto for more than three decades. The preschool is licensed to serve about 145 children, about 20% of whom are still coming to school in person.

Once HeadsUp realized it could stay open, the school rushed to restructure its environment to meet the shelter-at-home restrictions for child care facilities. The facility added a separate entrance for parents, researched the sanitation mats, purchased infrared thermometers for temperature checks and instituted assigned seating. (They added the mats so kids could keep their shoes on inside but hopefully keep the floors clean, where they sit for lessons and other activities.) Under the shelter-at-home order, child care facilities must have groups of 12 or fewer children, who may not change from one group to another. Groups may not mix, and providers can work with only one group of children.

Children aren’t sharing materials in the classroom, though it was rare to have students doing so at the same time during normal circumstances, said HeadsUp President Chuck Bernstein. Teachers had always disinfected frequently touched surfaces and are doing so even more frequently now, he said. Janitorial staff clean everything again at night and maintenance staff clean gates, tricycles and playground structures during the day.

Some activities, like class cooking projects, simply can’t continue with the current social distancing restrictions. In the school’s infant-toddler room, children are kept apart but it’s “not possible to maintain social distancing of teachers and children because of the intimate nature of caretaking tasks,” Bernstein said, such as feeding and changing diapers. The school is continuing strict hygiene practices in that room, including staff wearing gloves and shoe protectors and disinfecting bedding and toys.

Groups of 12 or fewer children can still play outside, while teachers watch closely and remind them to keep their distance from one another, Bernstein said. They’ve created the idea of “play stations” to keep children separate while playing in the sandbox or at an outside table, for example.

HeadsUp focuses on “immersive,” self-directed learning in multi-aged groups and, until now, had eschewed technology in the classroom. But with the majority of parents choosing to keep their children at home, the school decided to develop an online learning program.

“Montessori in general has been hesitant to use computers, but times have changed,” Kostepen said. “We adapt.”

They started with Zoom classes — math, art, music, Chinese, Spanish, yoga — which were recorded and posted to a private Facebook group for children who couldn’t watch them live. (They quickly figured out that group singing doesn’t work very well on Zoom.) They soon added a YouTube channel to archive lessons and other materials and have been using FaceTime for private lessons and tutoring, according to an update Bernstein sent to parents in April.

“Daily circle,” a time in the morning when teachers sit with the children and talk about the weather and other introductory lessons, is now happening online. Kostepen is leading a virtual story time using an online library application that allows her to share her screen as she’s reading a book.

None of the online classes are required, and the school is encouraging parents to be flexible to prevent young children from sitting in front of screens for long stretches of time.

“Obviously, online learning cannot fully replace in-person learning at school, but it helped us a lot in terms of keeping our son more engaged with his learning routines,” said Neda Zare, who decided her 4 ½-year-old son would continue with HeadsUp from home. “Also, he missed his friends and teachers the first few days that we did not have online classes, and when the classes started he was excited to see them and interact with them.”

Teachers are reaching out directly to parents more so than they did before, Kostepen said, to check in and make sure their children’s needs are being met. During a recent virtual check-in, a teacher was able to watch a toddler learning to walk.

“We’ve had a few different wonderful moments” like that, she said. “We’re a social support as much as we are an academic support at this point, especially for that very young child.”

The preschool has already enrolled children for the next school year, and what challenges the preschool might face long term related to the coronavirus are in the back of Kostepen’s mind.

“But the more immediate (concern) is how will we open up at the end of the month?” she asked. “At the end of May, if everything is lifted, how will we open back up more fully? When we have more children coming in, what will that look like?”

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