In the last two years, several school districts in southeast Connecticut have decided to pilot universal pre-kindergarten programs for local three and four-year olds. Now, coronavirus-related concerns of safety, finance and teaching method, pose unforeseen challenges to educating their youngest pupils, even as the programs prove popular.
The Westbrook school district, for example, introduced a universal pre-k program last year, transitioning from a half-day model to a full-day model.
The district intended to expand that program this year, before pandemic concerns put those plans on hold, and a combination of financial ramifications from COVID-19 and concerns about overpopulating classrooms meant that Westbrook decided instead to wait-list about 12 non-special education three-year-olds when Westbrook schools return to in-person learning this fall.
The district will take all the four-year-olds registered with the schools, as well as any three-year-olds who need special accommodations, such as occupational, physical or speech therapy. Also included are English-language learners.
According to Ruth Rose, principal of the Daisy Ingraham Elementary School, about 20 percent of the students at Daisy Ingraham have a first language other than English — the majority either Spanish or Portuguese.
Despite virus concerns, the program increased enrollment from 45 students last year to 51 preschoolers this year split into four classrooms.
“I think it is very attractive to families because it’s full-day childcare in a public school setting with certified teachers,” said Rose.
Lyme-Old Lyme Schools
Westbrook is not the only district to have its universal pre-k program affected by the pandemic.
According to Ian Neviaser, superintendent of Lyme-Old Lyme schools, the pandemic has increased demand for the district’s pre-k program, particularly with New Yorkers who own second houses in the Lyme-Old Lyme area.
“They’re deciding, because of the pandemic, not to go back,” said Neviaser. “So they are looking to enroll their students in our programs.”
Lyme-Old Lyme introduced a universal pre-k program in the 2019-20 school year. The district currently has six preschool classrooms and a total of 92 students, up from 83 the previous year.
Neviaser said that enrollment has grown to the point that he intends to recommend to the school board that the district add an additional classroom.
Other parents have turned to universal pre-k programs because local private programs decided not to reopen during the pandemic.
Kathy Bai, director of pupil and professional services at Old Saybrook schools, said that the district had received several inquiries from parents after one local preschool closed down.
Bai also said that it’s possible that financial difficulties could lead parents to opt for the tuition-free program offered in the Old Saybrook public schools rather than the expense of private daycare.
Currently only special needs students, who number about 15 out of the 60 preschoolers in the district, attend tuition-free. The other students pay $3,450 per year, a number which is expected to decrease by a little over a thousand dollars each year. All four-year-olds are expected to attend tuition free by 2023, and all three-year-olds by 2024.
Although the cost of providing personal protective equipment to teachers and staff, hand sanitizer for children and frequent deep-cleanings of the schools is expected to strain budgets, neither Neviaser nor Bai said they expect that to impact the new pre-k programs.
A typical day
Although both Lyme-Old Lyme and Westbrook school districts plan to resume in-person learning in the fall, a typical school day will look very different than previously, and the new rules and restrictions are expected to pose a particular challenge for young children.
A common concern of preschool parents has been the idea that their child might be expected to wear a mask all day.
The Office of Early Childhood Education, however, in coordination with the governor, recently announced that three- and four-year-olds will not need to wear masks in the classroom. Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in a press conference with Gov. Ned Lamont on July 29, said that children younger than the age of ten do not seem to transmit the virus as readily as adults, and that their risk of hospitalization is low.
Districts are still implementing a variety of precautions, including providing teachers with face shields, installing plexiglass shields for staff and requiring parents to check their child’s temperature and answer a series of health-related questions before coming to school each morning.
At the preschool level, plans for in-person learning include limiting the number of shared toys, spacing out the students during naptime and changing the ways that students and parents will exit and enter the school building to minimize the number of people coming into contact with one another.
Patricia Charles, the interim superintendent of Westbrook Public Schools, said another concern she has heard from parents is that social distancing would lead to less hands-on learning. Charles assured parents that this wasn’t the case.
“We don’t expect our youngest students to be confined to a desk for long periods of time,” she said. “It’s not realistic at all.”
Charles said that instead they would provide students with as many individualized materials as possible and encourage teachers to bring the children outside for extra recesses.
A central part of Westbrook’s strategy is creating “cohorts,” small groups of students that stay together while remaining separate from other groups as much as possible. The idea is that if one of these students becomes sick with COVID, it will be easy to identify who else was in contact with the child.
“A class of 12 students doesn’t mix with another one,” explained Rose. “They don’t eat lunch together. They don’t go out to recess together and they stay with the teachers dedicated to that group.”
Rose said that the vast majority of parents have decided to send their kids to school, but about ten percent of students will instead use remote learning, including four or five preschoolers.
Along with the districts of East Lyme, Norwich and New London, Old Saybrook has also opted to begin the school year with a hybrid classroom model, meaning that half of students will attend on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other half on Thursdays and Fridays. During five-day weeks, Wednesdays will serve as a remote learning day for everyone, giving schools a chance for a deep cleaning. Special education students or students defined as “high risk” will receive more in-person days.
Old Saybrook schools intend to return to an in-person model by October 5th.
Distance learning and preschoolers
School officials say that the goal — even with distance learning — is to minimize the amount of time the student has to spend staring at a computer. This is especially true for younger students.
According to Rose, teachers might create mini-lessons, or, in the case of a hybrid plan, live-stream from the classroom for the children who are at home on any given day. But she said that she wants students to participate in the activities rather than simply watching classmates play from afar.
“We don’t really want to have our children in front of the screen all day long. That’s not optimal for sure,” explained Rose.
Of course, this model would require parents to be present and attentive during the school day. “You can’t expect the three or four year old just to click on the computer and log onto a Zoom meeting by themselves,” said Neviaser. He said that the school district was working to make accommodations for parents who are essential workers, so that if the district later adopts a hybrid model, their children would be able to have increased in-person instruction.
According to Charles, the pandemic has cost Westbrook schools over $1.6 million, and Bai estimates that the costs for Old Saybrook could reach a few million dollars. Both are hoping that federal funding will offset any budget deficits. Westbrook is requesting that FEMA cover 75 percent of the cost.
Rose said she hopes that the effects of the virus will not stop Daisy Ingraham from welcoming more three-year-olds in the 2021-22 school year. “We never turn away any child from kindergarten through 12th grade,” she said. “I’m hoping we can make the same commitment to preschoolers. Even though it’s not mandated. I’m hoping that we would still be able to do that.”