Pre-K in a pandemic: Keeping the youngest learners safe at school

Pre-K in a pandemic: Keeping the youngest learners safe at school

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Students of all grades and ages are getting back in the classroom, including the youngest learners in New Hanover County.

The three- and four-year-olds at Johnson Pre-K Center in Wilmington are getting their first taste of formal education in the midst of a pandemic.

The school follows the same plan under the school district’s Plan B; one group comes on Mondays and Tuesdays, virtual learning for everyone on Wednesdays, the other group comes on Thursdays and Fridays.

Principal Dr. Karen McCarty says technology isn’t a huge priority at Johnson Pre-K so remote learning was bit of a challenge.

“Adjusting to the remote instruction with the limited amount of technology we do have in the building is one of the biggest challenges for not only our teachers, but also our families as well,” said Dr McCarty. “The students just kind of roll with it.” Out of the 220 students enrolled at Johnson, about 60-70 of them opted for full-time remote learning.

With some students back in the classrooms and other continuing virtual learning, Shannon Smiles, the NHCS Director of Early Childhood Education says building those relationships between teachers and family is crucial.

“It’s critical that we are able to be flexible and adaptable and accommodating to our families depending on their needs," Smiles said. "Building relationships is a huge strength that a lot of our professional development helps our teachers and teacher assistance to build and strengthen this family relationships.”

One challenge many thought the teachers and educators would face with students, especially the youngest ones, is keeping the masks on.

“The masks are not much of an issue,” said David Nash, a teacher at Johnson Pre-K. “They’re pretty comfortable in them and three-year-olds are very good at their routines so when they get it down, they help us a lot by reminding us to put it down or take it off.”

Young learners at Johnson Pre-K are learning more than their ABC's.
Young learners at Johnson Pre-K are learning more than their ABC's. (Source: WECT)

But what is a challenge: social distancing.

“We want to play with one another,” Smiles said. “That’s how we learn... is through play. We are craving connection and touch and when you have to replace that with social distancing, I feel like we’ve gotten very talented with it; we came very prepared for it. So we’re doing it in different ways; the centers look different when we play, but they’re getting it. They’re grasping. They’re modeling it.”

With some learning from home full-time and the rest alternating the days they’re in class, the teacher-to-student ratio is a lot smaller; some classes consist of one or two students a day. There used to be 15-18 students in each classroom everyday before the pandemic.

“It’s been nice with low ratios with face-to-face with these uncertain times and transitioning into Plan B," said Smiles. “We hear a lot, across the district, that they’re able to meet their individual needs, work one-on-one with them, and meet their remote learners individual needs as well.”

There are several safety and cleaning measures in place to keep the virus and other illnesses away.

“We have cleaning schedules,” said Nash. “We’ve sanitized the tables between uses. We sanitize the restrooms. The custodial staff comes through and does their cleaning.” Students also wash their hands more frequently.

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