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Pre-K in a pandemic: How local providers are preparing the county’s youngest
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Youngsters play on the playground at Gainesville Academy Thursday, July 30, 2020. - photo by Scott Rogers

As schools prepare to return to class in a global pandemic, so too do pre-K providers, and it isn’t easy explaining the importance of social distancing and regular hand washing to young children. 

While guidance from the state has been thorough, says Pam Forrester, director of Gainesville Academy’s child care center, putting precautionary procedures into practice is still going to be a struggle.  

“Pre-K is going to be a bit more of a challenge this year,” she said.  

All pre-K providers that fall under the umbrella of Georgia’s pre-K program have been sent guidelines for re-opening from the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, according to Susan Adams, deputy commissioner for DECAL’s pre-K and instructional support. 

The guidelines advise pre-K providers on matters including classroom requirements, family participation in the classroom and sanitation suggestions. 

“What we’ve done is given recommendations that follow closely with the CDC guidance,” Adams said. “And then also the guidance that came out from the American Academy of Pediatrics that are specific for pre-school aged children.” 

DECAL’s plan allows providers to choose from three instructional models: traditional face-to-face, hybrid and fully virtual, although it recommends strongly that “programs place a priority on having students physically present in Pre-K classrooms.”  

Those who choose the traditional model, like Gainesville Academy, are asked to come up with a plan for rotating classroom materials and supplies to allow time for sanitation and cleaning. The plan also acknowledges that maintaining physical distance of 6 feet among students at all times is unrealistic, but suggests that programs “consider measures to encourage physical distancing.” Those measures include small-group instruction and keeping children as far apart as possible during large group settings such as “circle time.”  

It also recommends health screenings upon arrival, to prevent sick students from ever reaching the classroom. Forrester said Gainesville Academy will be checking students’ temperatures “before they get out of the car,” and preventing anyone with a fever of 100 degrees or higher from entering the school building.  

Kelsey Rivera, assistant director at Chestnut Mountain Academy in Flowery Branch, says her school will also be choosing the traditional model. Rivera said the school would be requiring daily morning temperature checks, and she added that this year will involve a greater than usual emphasis on teaching students healthy habits, such as hand washing and covering their coughs and sneezes with their arms. 

But new sanitation and screening measures are far from the only challenges pre-K providers will face this fall.  

One of the largest changes for Gainesville Academy and Chestnut Mountain Academy is the disallowing of parent volunteers in the classroom. Forrester expressed concerns over how many young children would deal with being separated from their parents for the first time.  

“The biggest challenges are children that have never been in a formal school setting, getting them into that routine of being away from mom and dad, and then mom not being able to see their classroom and not being able to go into their room,” she said.  

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Youngsters play on the playground at Gainesville Academy on Thursday, July 30, 2020. - photo by Scott Rogers

Rivera had similar worries, adding that separation in some cases would be as difficult for the parents as it would be for the students. She said Chestnut Mountain Academy teachers would be regularly taking pictures in the classroom so parents can feel involved in their students learning process. Forrester said she was encouraging parents to participate in virtual assistance, such as video calling the class to read to them. 

Susan Moon, director of the Childcare Development Center at First Presbyterian Church in Gainesville, said while parent volunteers are not usually a major part of the pre-K program at First Presbyterian, other precautionary regulations would make instruction difficult for teachers. Like the other locations, First Presbyterian has also selected the traditional model, and teachers in the program will be wearing masks and face shields. Moon said that could end up being an impediment to early learning.  

“Children need to see their teacher’s face,” she said. “When you’re teaching them how to pronounce words, they need to see your face. Having to wear the mask is prohibiting that.” 

Teaching young students to adhere to safety protocols without alarming them has also been an area of concern, according to Rivera.  

She said that Chestnut Mountain Academy would be focusing on telling students why it is important to distance themselves from their peers and regularly wash their hands using “kid-friendly language.” 

“If they don’t understand why we’re putting all these provisions and measures into place, they’re going to not want to do it,” she said. 

As the school year approaches, pre-K providers say they’ve been forced to put on a juggling act as they try to keep their students safe while still providing quality early education.  

And while offering a traditional, face-to-face pre-K experience is not going to be easy, Forrester said it’s a service she’s happy to oversee in an effort to alleviate some of the pressure that local parents have to face. 

“For the parents, it’s a necessity,” she said. “Not all of them, but for a big majority of them, it’s a necessity to have availability for child care.” 

Pre-K programs at Chestnut Mountain Academy and First Presbyterian Church will be starting on Aug. 17 and Gainesville Academy’s program will begin on Aug. 24. 

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