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COVID's Effect on Pre-K Learning and Efforts to Grow Classrooms Post-Pandemic

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Colins Sanders
M.L. Schultze
Colins Sanders is part of the increasing emphasis Canton schools are putting on preschool education.

Preschool—viewed as potentially the great equalizer in education—got walloped in the pandemic. Kids disappeared from the rolls, and the loss was greatest in communities of color and poverty. But coming out of the shutdown, efforts are underway to recover and, perhaps, grow preschool post-pandemic.

Dayree Stokes and son Judah
M.L. Schultze
Dayree Stokes’ son Judah was named a Canton City preschool student of the month, despite struggles that came with the pandemic. As a foster kid, Stokes says she was among those who many thought would fail. But she didn’t, and she says her son won’t either with the help of community resources like SPARK and the realignment of Canton schools.

Judah Israel Stokes was three when the pandemic struck, upending plans for him to follow his sister’s footsteps, literally, to preschool. Like districts throughout Ohio, Canton City went virtual, increasing demands on working and single parents. Mom, Dayree, said it was overwhelming.

“It was like, okay, I need a moment. This is hard. Help!” she said.

Stokes said everyone was trying hard to make virtual education work. She was even a bit hopeful that Canton’s plan to put iPads in the hands of every child, even preschoolers, would pay benefits.

“I thought it would go okay because it’s a tablet, you know. Kids love tablets,” she laughed.

She quickly learned that being screen savvy is no substitute for the learning that comes from play and interaction, and the science supports her.

A summary of research by the American Institutes for Research concluded overall that children are more successful in school and beyond if they are given a strong foundation in the earliest years of their life. The rest is in the details: just how early learning and school readiness approaches affect everything from language to social-emotional skills, how to ensure quality programs and how to measure the progress kids make.

groundworks push for education.jfif

Groundwork Ohio is lobbying Ohio to make a bigger commitment to preschool education and child care. Director Shannon Jones notes the state has no comprehensive preschool program, and the earliest of childhood education is often considered ancillary.

But, she notes, 80% of the brain is built in the first three years of life.

“It’s literally setting that brain architecture that’s not only supporting the academic learning potential, but the social and emotional and executive functioning skills that are essential” for life, she said.

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Keith Freund

And for today’s preschoolers, a third of that crucial time has been disrupted by the pandemic. The official kindergarten readiness scores won’t be released until fall, but the preliminary numbers show that’s been costly.

The percentage of kids on track for language and literacy has dropped from more than 60% to just a little more than 50%.

And Jones says those results may underestimate the problem. Enrollment in Ohio preschools has never been high but dropped by more than 25% in 2020. And children most likely to drop out were those who are Black, non-English speakers, disabled or poor.

“So the ones that we really need to capture, identify, understand and then provide intervention to, aren’t even being tested,” Jones noted.

For more on how the pandemic disrupted early learning in Ohio, click here

The dropout rate was highest among virtual programs. And the schools have been trying to recover. Canton City was among the first urban schools in Ohio to return to in-person instruction, while still offering virtual learning pre-K through 12.

Tammy Mishak's preschool classroom
M.L. Schultze
Tammy Mishak’s preschool classroom at Worley School looks a lot different than in the pre-pandemic days. The clusters of tables are gone; desks are 6 feet apart. During “brain breaks” the kids play at separate centers (though that’s loosened to two per station in recent weeks).

Tammy Mishak’s preschool classroom at Worley School looks a lot different than in the pre-pandemic days. The clusters of tables are gone; desks are six feet apart. During “brain breaks” the kids play at separate centers (though that’s loosened to two per station in recent weeks).

The Akron Zoo used to bring critters into the class. That’s gone virtual, replaced with a video of the keeper and a box for each child with a stuffed version of hedgehogs, mealworms, grooming goods, and “emotion wheels.”

Aamilah Culleer plays in preschool classroom
M.L. Schultze
Aamilah Culler takes a break from caring for her stuffed hedgehog to care for her baby doll and critique a classmate’s plastic-pizza choices. In recent weeks, Canton has allowed the children to get a bit closer together during “brain breaks” at play stations.

Despite the social distancing within the classroom, Mishak says her children still incorporation important interaction.

“They were making cards for one another and pictures for one another and giving it to them, so that social-emotional skill was still developing, even as they were 6 feet apart and masks on,” she said.

Because other children remain virtual, class sizes are smaller this year. Mishak has 15, a size she wishes would become the norm. It won’t.

Preschool student Aunabella Hughes colors at desk
M.L. Schultze
Aunabella Hughes’ desk is a careful 6 feet from the next one. Though guidelines now allow children to sit closer together, teacher Tammy Mishak says they’ve established a routine that makes all of the children comfortable.

But smaller classes overall are one key piece of what Canton City has planned for preschool education next year. A new center is a key piece of an overhaul of the district that includes an expansion of arts programs, realigning elementary grades and a new virtual academy.

For more on Canton City Schools Design for Excellence, click here.

Preschool teacher Tammy Mishak
M.L. Schultze
Tammy Mishak says her students' return to the classroom meant a lot of sanitizing, but the preschoolers quickly adapted to masks and picked up their social interaction growth, at a 6-foot distance.

Mishak says she’ll miss Worley but is excited at the prospect of a single place where preschool is paramount.

Linnea Olbon is Canton’s director of early childhood education. The preschool plan promises to cut costs, in part by cutting the time teachers and intervention specialists were traveling among schools. It also promises to increase support services for children and teachers. And the district has come with a plan for door-to-door transportation for all 321 children.

Canton Early Childhood Education Director Linnea Olbon
M.L. Schultze
Canton Early Childhood Education Director Linnea Olbon says the preschool center will save money, increase support, cut class sizes, and include door-to-door transportation.

Olbon says if all goes right, people will find “it is going to be a very welcoming place, very student centered. Obviously it will be organized chaos, of course,” she said. “Just a lot of love, a lot of love.”

Olbon believes some kind of realignment would have occurred without the pandemic. But COVID-19 contributed a sense of urgency.

Advocate Shannon Jones says Canton’s plan is promising except for one thing. The numbers are too few. Statewide, she says, there needs to be more quality day care and preschool education.

For the first time in her memory, she says, money is not the primary challenge facing early childhood education. Local grants, state spending, federal stimulus and even President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal all have line items for preschools. So, she says, it’s time to rethink the patchwork of programs in Ohio.

“Or are we going to squander the opportunity by not thinking about what young children really need for lifelong success?” she asked.

 Maximum McLaughlin plays with toys
M.L. Schultze
Maximum McLaughlin is making an offbeat potato head for a classmate.

Dayree Stokes’ son, Judah, who was failing preschool, has just been named a student of the month. She credits a kindergarten preparedness program called SPARK for bridging the gap when schools went online and her son tuned out.

“I don’t feel like it’s a lost cause. It’s always a moment toward where we can save and help and build something greater than what we have had in the past,” Stokes said. “So why not take that extra step to do it?”

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M.L. Schultze came to WKSU as news director in July 2007 after 25 years at The Repository in Canton, where she was managing editor for nearly a decade. She’s now the digital editor and an award-winning reporter and analyst who has appeared on NPR, Here and Now and the TakeAway, as well as being a regular panelist on Ideas, the WVIZ public television's reporter roundtable.