Preschool foundation harder to build over last two years, Cohen

Sarah Cohen is a preschool teacher who runs a self-contained classroom for students with special needs at the Amherst Early Education Center (AEEC).

As we approach the anniversary of the day Amherst Regional Public Schools closed two years ago, we continue to be reminded of the fact we are living amidst a pandemic. Since the vaccine became approved for almost all ages and mask mandates were put in place, Amherst schools have been open this past school year and the spring of last school year. 

Nevertheless, all students’ learning was affected by the school closure in March of 2020, but preschool and elementary school aged students were particularly difficult to effectively teach via online meetings. Sarah Cohen is not just my mom; she’s a preschool teacher who runs a self-contained classroom for students with special needs at the Amherst Early Education Center (AEEC). In our interview, she highlighted specific struggles she and her co-workers faced throughout the school closure and even now as they teach these young students in the ongoing pandemic.

Teaching during the school closure

Amherst Early Education Center is an inclusion program, meaning that general education students and students with IEPs are learning and playing together in the same classrooms. Last year, due to the school closures, some teachers and paraeducators visited students at their homes in order to provide services and facilitate access to online class meetings and services. 

“[It] was a different program last year,” said Cohen. “Hands-on learning is essential for preschoolers. Social interactions, understanding and negotiating the feelings of others, learning how to act and share in groups, are all essential. These experiences can’t be replicated over a screen.”

AEEC was given special permission to return to in-person learning in January of 2021, “but it was a shorter day and a modified program,” Cohen said. In prior years, sharing of communal materials, taking turns, and encouraging communication between students was always part of the program. 

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, students were encouraged to do the opposite; toys and materials were not shared and were washed and sanitized as much as possible when used by multiple students. 

“Students in preschool and beyond may be developmentally behind because they didn’t have the experience they were supposed to have,” Cohen said. “Even when we came back in person last year, the hours were reduced and we were trying to maintain distancing between students when possible. [There were] fewer interactions with students their age and less school experience in general.” 

Unintended consequences of the mask mandate and social distancing

Wearing a mask anywhere in public has become necessary to keep ourselves and others around us safe. While this doesn’t usually impact learning for older students, it does at the preschool. Teachers cover topics like social emotional development and understanding and managing their own feelings and the feelings of others. Wearing masks presents an additional challenge when it comes to teaching these topics. 

Cohen talked about how working on communication with students is difficult to do with masks. “[If] students can see your whole face it’s easier to teach social cues and to model speech and it’s easier to hear what children are saying, especially if they are working on communication,” she said. 

Cohen also noted that even in-person school is fundamentally different from what it was while trying to keep preschoolers at a social distance. “A lot of what is taught is social skills so you question how close students [should be] when they interact together. It’s kind of contradictory: encourage socialization, but keep [students] apart,” she said. 

Increased stress among everyone

Cohen shared that one of the hardest issues throughout the pandemic has been the stress and anxiety in herself and colleagues, parents, guardians, and care-givers of students. She said she had to learn to “accept that there are limitations in what you can do and [what you can] expect from people. [You have to] accept that people have different tolerances for the changes and fears and risks.” It can also be hard to see the effects of adult stress on young students.

“It also becomes difficult when… families have kids [with] medical concerns [and] don’t feel it’s safe for their child to be in the classroom,” Cohen said. Not being able to send your child to school for fear of them getting sick is really hard for parents, students, and teachers who want the child to learn.

Cohen also explained that some students have medical exemptions and don’t wear masks at school. She said that she is walking a line between awareness and following safety protocols, such as frequent handwashing and disinfecting of materials, and focusing on teaching over worrying about COVID and the possibility of contracting it, taking it home, and transmitting it to family members.

Relationships between parents and teachers

“[Remote meetings] are also challenging because there is a lot that gets lost when you are trying to build relationships with families, but have to speak over zoom rather than face to face,” Cohen said. 

Preschool is a place where families and teachers work together to serve students, but as of now parents are not allowed in the building. “I remember as a young parent it was important to me to see the physical space where my children spent their days. As well as little things like seeing their and their peers’ artwork displayed together,” she said. “That was meaningful for me. My heart goes out to families that send these very young students to school but don’t have this opportunity or the chance to meet other parents and guardians at potlucks or Open House Night.”

Hopes for the future  

“[In the future] I’d love to not have to worry about whether someone I know has COVID, and whether a random runny nose is going to make other students sick. I’d also love to go back to things like field trips, not wearing masks, and enjoying eating together as a community experience,” Cohen said. 

She said most of all she hopes that school doesn’t close down again. 

“Our students need to be in person. Preschool is the essential foundation for all that is to come in school from kindergarten through twelfth grade and beyond,” she said. “The brain development that happens before ages five and six offers a critical window for learning. It is absolutely essential that these students and their families get the best experience we can provide.”