In mid-March, COVID-19 forced schools at all levels to close their doors. While K-12 schools shifted to distance learning programs, it wasn’t as easy for many independent preschools to react in the face of dramatic change. But one local preschool didn’t miss a beat: Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Academy in Wilton has successfully completed eight weeks of distance learning for its 3- and 4-year-old preschool students.
GOOD Morning Wilton sat down virtually with OLFCA preschool teacher Rebecca Gammardella, known as “Mrs. Della” within the school community, to discuss how OLFCA adapted its preschool program at such a challenging time.
GOOD Morning Wilton: First, give us some context as to what was happening in your 3/4’s class when COVID-19 first arrived in our area.
Rebecca Gammardella: “March is an important point in the school year. School abruptly stopped right around the start of the last marking period for our students. At that point in the year, they recognize their numbers and letters, I’m emphasizing fine and gross motor skills, having them take responsibility for their supplies and work area, and following multi-step directions. Remember, preschoolers are prepping for kindergarten. These are the skills they need to have. It’s so easy to lose momentum. I didn’t want that to happen when the school closed.”
GMW: How did you approach the transition to a distance learning model?
RG: “I saw it as, I have to not only deliver those skills, but I must deliver the classroom experience to each child’s home. I also know distance learning for a preschool child is not going to work if it only consists of using an iPad or a Chromebook. The hands-on aspect is vital. My students need to feel the crunch of their scissors, the tracking of a pencil or crayon on paper, applying glue neatly, keeping all their activity supplies in order, these are all important skills for a pre-k student.”
GMW: So, day-to-day, how do you get that to happen from a distance?
RG: “Every week I select a theme, and I put together ‘activity bags’. One large activity bag will have five individual bags, one for each day of the week, filled with academic skill-keepers, and ‘craftivities’ that go with the theme. I include all the supplies needed for each school day–patterns, construction paper, glue, paint, beads, paintbrushes, whatever is needed. Parents pick up the bags once a week.
“Then Monday through Friday, on a dedicated YouTube channel, there’s a program I record in a classroom I set up in my home. It’s a typical morning meeting routine like we would have at school, with greetings, news, daily calendar. I’ll do a flashcard number/letter review. And I’ll read aloud a story. The story is paired with a hands-on ‘craftivity’ which the students do at home.
“Having the daily bags and the prerecorded videos, the student and the family get some flexibility. My students are young learners, so they do require assistance and many of the parents are working from home. They have the flexibility to complete the lessons when it works best for them.”
GMW: Hold on. Did you say you assemble a packet for each day, for each student, with all the supplies they need? That sounds like quite a production.
RG: “Yes! I spend 10-12 hours every week on the activity bags. I choose a theme, find a book that correlates to read aloud, plan their hands-on project, order the supplies we need, organize everything, and pack it all up for each student.
“The parents commit to picking up the bags each week. It’s a big commitment for the parents and myself. But I think these activity bags are important. Good planning is essential, with stores closed and Amazon shipping being limited.”
GMW: What about the social aspect the students are missing?
RG: “I try to incorporate social activities. It’s important that we can still feel connected as a classroom and school community. We participate in group Zoom sessions so students can see their peers, and see me. I miss them! Zoom isn’t ideal for this age group, though. I’ve found it works best in small groups, for things like sharing a favorite toy or the family pet. For this age group, I don’t feel Zoom is appropriate for academic learning. But it helps us feel connected. We also write letters back and forth. One of my real-alouds was about how the mail works. I shared some of the letters they sent me on the YouTube program.”
GMW: What about your preschool and program allowed you to make this successful?
“A few reasons. One is the ‘Fatima Family’. That’s a phrase you hear all the time at OLFCA. Even before the pandemic, families were very involved in the school community. Not only are the parents picking up the activity bags once a week, but they have committed to helping their child plan out their workspace and plan their time, they supervise the activities, [etc].
“The key is the bond between home and school. I have always viewed education as a partnership, the school and home connection needs to be strong. It doesn’t matter if we are physically in school or distance learning. We are all on the same team.
“Distance learning has really opened up the pathway between home and school. We are really understanding each other as parents and educators, what it is like to ‘swap roles’ for a bit. Parents are able to reach out to me throughout the day to ask questions about the lessons, share pictures, and seek my help, and I have helped parents make behavioral charts, time management schedules, and establish new routines inside their home, so together as a team we are getting through it.
“Another real advantage OLFCA has over many preschool programs is that our pre-k is housed inside a school. Our students get to be preschoolers while getting the benefits of being part of a larger [K-8] school. Many pre-k [programs] in our area have shut down during the pandemic, and we have continued to keep educating. We have shifted the platform and implemented new procedures and routines, but we are having a relatively smooth completion to our school year.”
GMW: Looking back on the last eight weeks, what thoughts do you have?
RG: “I’m really happy that we didn’t lose precious time in providing continuity of learning. Distance learning is difficult for all age groups, but it is extremely difficult for a preschool program, where the majority of the curriculum is for developing motor skills, spatial awareness, self-regulation behavior, and social interaction. With school closed during the pandemic, personal contact–actual in-person interaction–was completely removed from the equation, and we were still able to keep their learning momentum going.
“I can also say, what all preschool teachers anywhere have in common is that we miss our students, their hugs, and the sound of their laughter.
“And I know the parents out there are feeling a lot of uncertainty, especially with the talk about the virus [possibly] coming back in the fall, wondering if schools are going to reopen, or if they’ll have to close again. I hope everything reopens as soon as possible, but if there are any issues next year, I know we have a good distance learning program already in place for our preschoolers to stay on track.”
A live virtual tour of the school is also available upon request. Registration fees are being waived until June 1, 2020.