When a child’s first teacher is onscreen: In Chicago, questions about the payoff of virtual preschool

Young girl uses a digital tablet to draw letters (here, an L).
Play used to dominate discussion about preschool curriculum. Since the coronavirus pandemic, the conversation has shifted to devices. (Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Zachary Trail always wanted to teach preschool. Before the coronavirus pandemic, he welcomed 4 year olds each fall into a bright and cozy classroom full of books, with bulletin boards in English and Spanish and shelves organized in bright rainbows of color.

Once Chicago decided to start the school year virtually, Trail pondered how to translate the wonder of an eye-popping preschool classroom onto a screen. He settled on designing a vividly colored bitmoji classroom complete with avatars of himself and his assistant teacher. 

“The classroom itself is such a powerful place, and it’s packed with so much emotion,” Trail said. “This year, one struggle I’ve had is how to give my new students an understanding of school, even though they are attending it from their living room or their grandma’s kitchen.”

Early education advocates have warned of serious learning losses among young children in the wake of the pandemic, since many preschool programs and child care centers were slow to move online or didn’t offer virtual options at all. In Chicago, school district leaders acknowledged the challenge of teaching 4 year olds online and initially intended to offer in-person preschool full time this fall, but plans were scuttled in favor of an all-virtual start after a late summer spike in coronavirus cases. 

That meant teachers had to move quickly to shift play-based lessons online and figure out how to two-dimensionally dazzle new classroom recruits — most of whom are having their first real experience with school.

A week in, Chicago educators say they are encountering a fresh set of challenges compared to the spring, when they already knew their students and the district offered few rules about screen time. Now with 150 minutes to fill each day — 60 minutes of which must be live instruction — preschool teachers must build new relationships with children and their families from a distance, capture the attention of wiggly 4 year olds enough to introduce letters and numbers, and teach an evolving set of classroom rules that includes frequent reminders about the mute button. 

They’re doing it all with little evidence on best practices for virtual early learning. 

And anecdotally, they’re encountering fewer students — another trend early education advocates are watching closely.  

It’s too early to say whether Chicago’s overall preschool enrollment will drop as it has in other cities, such as Los Angeles, where officials have sounded an alarm bell over fewer children ages 4, 5, and 6 enrolling in school. (Chicago typically doesn’t release full attendance figures until after the 20th day of enrollment.) If true, it could have financial implications and slow Chicago’s efforts to expand preschool to all eligible families.

“Right now our roster is seven children,” said Liz Carrick, a preschool teacher at a public school near Little Village, who expected twice that number. She said she thinks often about the struggles that are keeping children from signing up for preschool and whether a surge of families will show up when schools reopen. “I don’t know what these kids have experienced. I don’t know what their story is. Where are they?”

It’s not just public schools documenting fewer students. Bonnie Ho, the principal of Pui Tak Christian School near Chicago’s Chinatown, said her enrollment for in-person preschool is down from about 84 students to around 30. 

“We are not doing e-learning because for young children the best approach is face-to-face,” said Ho, who attributes declines to fear about the virus and employment instability among parents. In the spring, when the school shifted online, it placed a huge burden on families. “After the whole thing is done, preschool parents say, ‘It is like being a full-time teaching assistant at home.’”

For those who do log on, teachers say they’re doing their best to make the critical first days of school stick. All the while, they are wondering what impact this unusual school year will have on Chicago’s youngest children. 

“For these kids, this is school to them,” said Carrick. “They get on a computer, they talk to a friend they don’t know, they talk to teachers they don’t know either, then they go back to their lives. How is this going to stay with them?” 

It’s too soon to answer that. Research has shown that quality preschool education can have positive ripple effects on the lives of disadvantaged children through adulthood — studies show it influences academic performance, health, and even earning power. But those studies took place in real-life classrooms. When the classroom is digital, do potential benefits erode? And what about concerns that screen time is detrimental to a young child’s brain development? 

“I don’t think anybody believes that remote learning is a perfect substitute for going to school,” said Ariel Kalil, a developmental psychologist and professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy where she co-directs the Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab. 

But something virtually is better than nothing, she adds.  

“As long as the content is good — and there is no reason to think there isn’t good content out there — I think a digital tool can be extremely effective,” she said. “Of course, it can’t replace the real in-person class experience, but I would never write it off.”

Kalil said that digital applications may actually reduce some stress for families, caregivers, and even older siblings who are suddenly thrust into the role of educator. All the problems with technology and access have been well documented, but some use of devices appears to reduce some adults’ anxieties about helping children with subjects like math, she said. 

“We have a lot more to learn about the most efficient and effective ways to support parents to support their kids’ learning at home, and the role that preschools play in that process,” she said. 

One critical support she advocates for in this moment: schools sending home supplies and learning materials, and giving parents attainable, daily goals for helping their children — think regular read-alouds for 10 minutes. 

For now, Chicago preschool teachers must seize the virtual moment. So they are forging ahead with equal measures enthusiasm, instinct, and a spirit of experimentation. Margi Bhansali, a preschool teacher at Milton Brunson Math & Science Specialty Elementary School in Austin, is taking the age-old concept of activity centers and creating the virtual equivalent. She reimagined a classroom table piled with building blocks with a virtual “block” game that preschoolers manipulate on a screen. Children draw and paint on the screen in the online art center.

Bhansali confesses the transition has been hard, and the two-dimensional screen doesn’t give her much of a window into assessing her young learners’ skills and needs. “There’s only so much a kid will tell you when you are staring with them at a screen. Kids open up and you get to know them with their play, when they are interacting in the dramatic play center, when they are pretending,” she said. 

Still, she said she’s been encouraged by the enthusiasm she sees in the smiling faces that fill her screen daily. “I was expecting them to check out, to run around, to run away, to leave screen and do whatever else they want to do. They are actually staying, we do a lot of brain breaks — we stop and dance — but I’m actually pleasantly surprised at how engaged they are.”

Carrick said she, too, has felt buoyed by responses from her students. “On one hand, I can tell they are having fun and they are engaged and they are liking it, but after 15 minutes I can see they are tired,” she said. 

She already made changes to a suggested district schedule, which called for a 20-minute block of reading, followed by a 2 minute movement break. Carrick found that it worked better to incorporate dance breaks and jumping jacks throughout the lessons. While practicing counting, for example, she calls out numbers and her students stand up and do the corresponding number of jumping jacks. 

There are complications, however, that even the most creative teachers can’t solve for that could impact how much children absorb. Some students have an adult hovering in the background to help them log on or off, find their crayons, or help with activities that the schools send home, while others appear to be alone, with parents off-screen working or tending to siblings. Some children log on from day care centers or crowded relatives’ homes, struggling to communicate amid the noise in the background. 

One teacher said it’s jarring to read online about groups of parents hiring tutors and organizing pods, when she can see one of her students sitting beside multiple siblings in a garage. 

What about those who are missing entirely? Teachers wonder if their rosters will swell if and when school buildings reopen, or if families will sit out the entire year, and how they will assess what their students need. Despite pushes by legislators to lower the required age to start school, children are not required to attend pre-kindergarten or kindergarten in Illinois. 

“Families are working and participating in their child’s learning and they are somehow supposed to be doing it all at once. It’s a strain for everyone,” said Carrick. “We have to acknowledge that this is a huge responsibility for them.” 

Teachers like Carrick are already thinking about their next wave of challenges if and when school buildings reopen. In addition to the slate of safety considerations that can be tough to implement with groups of small children — masks and social distancing — they will have to make up for missed months of socialization and critical early learning skill building.  Says Carrick: “We’re all in totally uncharted territory.”

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