Hastily sent home one early day in March, Wilton’s preschool-aged children have been out of the classroom for almost six months, many of them unaware of just how much the world has changed. Now that September is here, parents are tasked with an essential question–how do you prepare a preschooler to return to a normal that no longer exists?

Wilton preschools have their back, in imaginative ways.

At Create Learning Center, face shields are ‘crowns’ that children wear when playing side-by-side, a knight-like shield that protects themselves and others from harm. Masks are hand decorated by each student. Here, personal protective equipment isn’t a barrier to play–it’s a prop that makes play possible.

For Wilton preschools, creativity, positivity, and planning are at the forefront of their reopening plans as directors busily adapt to the ‘new COVID normal’.

Precautions

Unlike K-12 schools, full in-person preschool is essential not only to match kids’ developmental learning demands but also for families’ need for childcare. Nonetheless, reopening preschools face added challenges that make planning for reopening no easy feat.

The Office of Early Childhood‘s recommendations for childcare providers restrict the number of kids in a cohort to 14 or fewer children (eight for nursery-aged kids), mandate that staff wear masks unless six-feet apart outside, and recommend socially distancing children whenever possible. The requirements also detail new deep cleaning procedures that centers should adopt, and ask parents to self-screen their children for observable illness and report if they have traveled out of state. Staff will self-screen for symptoms as well.

The requirements, however, do not make mask-wearing mandatory for children, especially those aged 3-years or younger. The report also acknowledges that teachers will not be able to stay apart from their students all the time, especially younger ones who rely on direct support. It instructs childcare providers to “protect themselves by wearing an overly-large button-down, long-sleeved shirt,” wear their hair up and out of their face, and change clothes after contact. The practicality of following this mandate in the warm fall months when preschools strive to maximize outdoor time raises an eyebrow.

Despite this, for some preschools, reopening does not necessarily seem like a daunting task. Sharon Cowley of Create Learning Center has successfully led a summer program for 11-weeks, she says with great results. To keep progress going in reopening, Cowley plans to take extra precautions that surpass state mandates, such as taking each child’s temperature twice a day and asking children to wear their masks.

But keeping kids safe has also required culture change. At the center, which Cowley emphasized has a “huge” social-emotional focus, children will be thoughtfully introduced to the new normal via a series of non-threatening strategies, such as calling PPE “dress up.”

“Our first week in school, we’re doing a huge push for how to take care of ourselves and take care of others,” Cowley said. “And [also discussing] what this whole coronavirus [pandemic] means to us, how they feel about it and what we can do to keep ourselves healthy. One of those things is wear “dress-ups,” wear a mask or shield when close [to others].”

This strategy worked at Create’s camp. Typically shared materials such as play-doh were replaced with soapy water tables for sensory time, and kids played outside in the sprinklers instead of inside. On the teacher side of things, the cleaning procedures, while detailed and time consuming, were easy to adjust to.

Now, however, what concerns Cowley is not the school’s ability to implement precautions but rather the outside influences that affect students, making no class a perfect cohort.

“I understand the cohort concept, but like the public schools, we’re so connected that I don’t know what that’s going to look like. And once the public schools open [that] really does affect us because I also have [teachers’] little kids. So we’re all connected and siblings are everywhere,” Cowley said.

Director Pam Ely at the Children’s Day School of Wilton shared this same concern about cohorts and her plans for addressing them. “My biggest commitment is to the safety of the kids and the staff,” Ely said.

At the Day School, not only will drop-off and pick-up be staggered, but parents will not be able to enter the building. Each child’s temperature will be taken before they enter the building, which will happen through separate entrances for each class.

Each individual class will remain in its own classroom and have its own playground for the day. Tents and tables set up outside will allow kids to learn outdoors for the majority of their activities as an extra precaution.

Additionally, Ely said every child outside of the twos class will wear a mask, although the school will provide mask breaks throughout the day and spaces where kids can be mask-free. Classes will also be capped at a low number and every toy, surface, and place inside and outside will be thoroughly sanitized each day.

Concerns about Reopening

For some preschools, however, reopening concerns, specifically around mixing cohorts, were too great. Helping Hands Preschool–located within Wilton High School as an integral part of the schools’ Child Development Class where high schoolers and preschoolers interact–is being postponed indefinitely, according to teacher Kristina Sluzewski.

“No final decisions have been made on if or when we will reopen this year, but the school’s administration is working hard to create a safe school environment to hopefully allow the preschool to reopen at some point in time,” Sluzewski wrote to GMW. “The decision will lie on the commissioner and high school administration on when it is deemed safe to potentially reopen the program.”

Sluzewski said that even if the preschool reopens, class size will be limited because of their fears about the virus.

While Ely is confident in the Day School’s ability to keep kids physically safe, she anticipates that the transition back will take an emotional toll on the preschool’s community.

“Our biggest challenge is going to be the level of anxiety that the parents are going to have, that staff’s going to have, [and] that the kids are going to have all about being back in a school, how it’s going to go, [and] what it’s going to look like,” Ely said. “Are the kids going to be happy, [or] are they going to be afraid? Some of them have not been anywhere other than with their families. So I think the first two weeks I anticipate probably having a high level of anxiety on everybody’s part and trying to make sure that we understand that we can do this and we can make this work. We just have to be very focused and very mindful of keeping each other safe and also having the trust of the families and the families having the trust of us.”

Ely is combating this in a multitude of ways; for example, though parents will not be allowed into the building once the school is operating, families will have a chance to meet their teachers one-on-one so the young kids can feel comfortable in the space before school begins. She also emphasized that despite the transition, she knows that the community is relishing any chance to be back in the classroom.

Wilton’s Apple Blossom School and Family Center is also chasing the feeling of normalcy. As a Waldorf school, Apple Blossom operates on the foundations of “movement, free play, and the exploration of nature,” according to its website. The school was in the unique position of already featuring individualized, small-group, outdoor learning before the pandemic began.

However, though teachers will be asked to wear masks, the school will not ask kids to wear masks and social distance. Instead, the approach rests on forming strict cohorts, or “pods,” cleaning the school deeply, and learning outside as much as possible, Lizzy McDonald, the Enrollment and Communications Coordinator for the school, said.

“Really the way that we’ve attempted to mitigate [risk] is in having the classes separate and keeping them like pods so the nursery and the kindergarten don’t mix. We [also] staggered drop off and pick up and the parents socially distance,” she said. “Of course we can’t control what people do in their free time. So if you are sending your kid in…there are risks more or less here you’re consenting to take and we on our end are doing our best to limit the spread of COVID and keep everybody safe.”

Acknowledging not everyone would be comfortable with this approach, McDonald said the school strived to create options for “all comfort levels.” She pointed to Apple Blossom’s virtual, eight-week “Pillars of Parenting Class” as a way the school can support parents in educating their children if they choose to keep them home.

Additionally, as the Waldorf philosophy strongly discourages technology use for students, McDonald said the school would not close unless the Office of Early Childhood mandated they close, even if the K-12 public schools go remote.

“We are play-based and what we’re really dedicated to is…cultivating imagination and that magic of childhood that is so special and treasured,” McDonald said.

Importance of Reopening

McDonald said that safe-keeping the “magic of childhood” has never been harder–or more important–then it is now, which is one of the primary reasons she’s excited to get kids back into school.

“Really what the science shows is that being outside, being in community, moving the body, climbing trees, getting lost in imaginative play and…trusting the wisdom of the child and letting them lead in that way really builds the foundation for academic learning and confidence,” she said.

The Day School’s Ely agreed, adding that despite all the challenges, she couldn’t be more excited to get back in the classroom.

“I’ve missed being part of a learning community and I’ve missed being part of listening to young children talk and laugh and have fun with each other, and I’ve missed talking to my staff about kids and how to help them develop and how to grow…I’ve missed being a part of a community that wants to create competent learners,” Ely said. “I’m looking forward to being part of that world again.”