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Albemarle preschool program works to overcome pandemic hurdles

In August, Alison Soubra and Debbie Shelor, preschool teachers at Greer Elementary, weren’t sure how they were going to pull off virtual learning with 4-year-olds.

“We are a learn-through-play-based program,” Shelor said. “How in the heck are we going to impact children’s play when they’re not coming into school? The best thing we could think of was put toys in their hands.”

To help with that, Shelor’s church gave them $1,500 initially and purchased 36 stuffed bears and copies of “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” for the preschoolers at Greer. Later, Albemarle County and the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation provided more funding to the Bright Stars program to make sure the youngsters had what they needed for virtual learning, such as iPads, books and games.

“It has been really just wonderful to see the community rally around preschool,” Bright Stars coordinator Carol Fox said, adding that the additional community support has allowed Bright Stars to recreate the preschool experience in students’ homes.

Historically, Bright Stars has received a range of community support, from in-kind to monetary donations, to help children learn about tennis and hand-eye coordination, the arts and dental hygiene.

Bright Stars is the public preschool program in Albemarle County. Serving 4-year-olds, the program is part of the county’s social services department and is funded by local government and the Virginia Preschool Initiative. Because of a drop in enrollment this year, those funds went toward retaining the current staff, leaving little to pay for supplies and learning materials.

Getting learning materials into the hands of children was one of several obstacles the Bright Stars team faced as it reinvented the program once for the all-virtual start to the school year and then later when the county school division moved to Stage Three and preschoolers could begin in-person classes. About 172 students are participating in the program this school year and about 40% are all-online.

“I cannot say enough about our entire staff, and I mean teachers, teaching assistants and family coordinators, because I can’t think of a more challenging task,” Fox said. “First just working with preschoolers, and then for the first nine weeks, providing a virtual/remote, high-quality preschool program when the children have never done school before. We don’t have devices. We’ve never had to do anything remotely close to this.”

Another obstacle was families’ access to technology. Bright Stars didn’t have iPads to hand out to families, who also didn’t receive a device from the school division unless they have an older child in the household. Families have had to use their phones, personal computers or another child’s device to join online classes.

“I do have to applaud our families for their efforts in making this work for their children,” Soubra said.

For virtual learning, teachers worked with parents on a schedule that would mirror a typical school day and used the materials to show them how to teach their children. But, parents were free to mold the schedule to fit their day.

Shelor said they didn’t want to make life harder for families.

“We’re not here to tell you that you need to be doing this, this, this and this with your child seven hours a day,” she said. “We’re here to support and to help to try to give your child the closest thing to a quality preschool experience that we possibly can under these crazy circumstances.”

Fox said a benefit of the donation is that it allows these materials to stay in homes for younger siblings to use and for the students to refer back to in kindergarten and beyond.

“The quality and what it allows, not just the child who’s enrolled in Bright Stars, but other siblings and the family in total, to do in learning together,” she said. “We’ve always known that the Bright Stars program is far reaching in its impact because we serve the whole family, so this is just another reminder of that impact that we are having.”

Developing skills

With $50,000 from CACF, the program was able to purchase about $300 worth of games, puzzles and other resources related to creativity, problem-solving, imagination and building early foundational skills for each student to use in their homes. The shipment arrived in early November. Since then, Shelor and Soubra have sent a few items home every few weeks to avoid overwhelming families.

“And we find that it really keeps the interest up,” Shelor said. “Every time they come to get a bag, they’re like, what’s going to be in it this time?”

The parents are excited, too, they said.

“Which is fun,” Soubra said. “We want our parents to be excited about their children’s education.”

Engaging and educating families has long been a key goal of the Bright Stars program, and the pandemic has helped teachers to better connect with families.

“I mean, it’s been a part of our program forever, this parent education piece, and we’ve always struggled every year,” Soubra said. “And this year, I think we’re doing it better than we ever have, and it was the pandemic that forced it on us.”

Fox agreed. Through virtual learning, families have been able to better understand the importance of their role in their child’s education.

“We have whole families joining Zoom bedtime stories with teachers,” Fox said. “We have whole families engaging in a game that has been sent home intended for a caregiver and child to do, but then the whole family becomes involved. We have many caregivers who we see sitting beside their child during Zoom meetings. So just a wonderful silver lining out of all of this is that our level of family engagement has just increased exponentially, and that’s something that we are fairly confident won’t go away now.”

Meanwhile, the program is still awaiting a shipment of 212 iPads. Fox used $131,000 in CARES Act funding from the county to purchase the devices.

“Of course, the time I was ordering, every division across the world was also ordering them,” Fox said earlier this month. “So ours have yet to arrive. Supposedly they’re en route.”

The county school division ordered 1,660 iPads over the summer for their first- and second-graders. That shipment also was delayed but the devices were delivered shortly into the school year.

Providing a device would ensure that every child in the program would be able to engage with their teacher and their teaching assistant, Fox said. The program is paying for hotspots or internet service for families that need it.

Fox said the lack of devices is “hugely problematic and very challenging.”

“We have a number of families who either have no device whatsoever, or the child is trying to engage in the activities on a caregivers’ cellphone,” she said.

If the caregiver has their phone at work, that means a child only has access to online classes in the evenings and isn’t able to engage in real time with their teachers.

“It has meant a lot of different things,” Fox said of not having devices. “One is that we’re lacking that equity. It also has created barriers and challenges for both the families, as well as the staff, on top of already so many significant barriers and challenges during this time.”

Grateful and excited

Shelor continued to teach virtually during Stage Three while Soubra taught the hybrid group.

The learning materials have helped to boost students’ enthusiasm and excitement about learning, they said. Over Zoom, Shelor teaches students how to use the materials and about organizational skills, such as cleaning up.

“We teach them how to take care of them properly, how to put them away and responsibility,” she said.

Teaching life skills is part of the preschool program, as well as how to be a learner.

Soubra said her students’ transition to in-person class went well because of the relationships she and Shelor formed with them and their families. That includes students who changed teachers during the switch.

“I think the beautiful partnership that we have here at Greer has really benefited our children,” Soubra said. “In both classes, whether they remain virtual or hybrid, because we continue to plan together. So what she’s doing virtually, my children are still getting the same things at home.”

However, the experience wasn’t the same for both groups. Shelor said they haven’t figured out to send paint home yet, and Soubra was working to teach social skills from a distance.

“Some of it is very logical,” she said. “Waiting for other friends to talk. If somebody drops something, you know you can offer to pick things up. That has been our biggest challenge, is really just how do we teach children through play and social-emotional skills in a socially distanced space.”

There are still plenty of learning materials that will go home to students when classes resume in January. In early December, they had games and other materials stacked and piled high in a classroom at Greer.

Fox said the initial shipment for all the Bright Stars classrooms arrived in more than 500 boxes.

Fox and the teachers said they were grateful and excited about handing out the items to families.

“We weren’t happy for ourselves; we were happy for our families,” Soubra said. “We were just so ecstatic that these learning materials would be going to families who otherwise might not ever have any of this.”


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