Reopening During a Pandemic: New Practices in the Early Childhood Classroom

Parent fitting a face mask to a young girl

So much has changed in the world of early childhood education since a global pandemic became part of our reality. School districts, families, child-care centers, home centers, state agencies, and federal agencies have been scrambling to keep up with what caring for young children looks like under new regulations. The statewide agency I work for consists of both federal (Head Start) and state-funded programs, and I’d like to share what guidance we’ve created for staff around changes in the day-to-day routine.*

Ratios and cohorts: In order to minimize risk, it’s important that we reduce and limit the number of people that come into contact with each other during the day.

  • We have established learning cohorts in order to minimize the number of people who enter each classroom.  
  • Our preschool classes now have two teachers and 10 kids.
  • Cohorting means that teachers will do all their own cleaning of the classroom and materials.

Face masks: It’s important to help kids adapt to the staff requirement to wear face masks and personal protective equipment in the classroom.

  • Put the mask on and off a few times, ideally while you’re outside, so children can begin to see that “it is really you” when you have the mask on.
  • If sanitation procedures allow, have washable stuffed animals or dolls wearing masks for children to explore in the classroom.
  • Using conversation and social stories, explain to children why people are wearing a mask.

Routines and transitions: In a world where so many routines in the children’s lives have been disrupted, maintaining predictability in the classroom is more critical than ever.

  • Keep consistent routines as much as possible right now.
  • Have a visual schedule posted. Use visuals to support children through transitions.
  • Prompt children—with a gentle sound, for example—before transitions and changes occur.
  • Do not use ropes or pair up children during transitions.

Learning: Children can continue learning through play with some adjustments to modality.

  • Whole group activities are not recommended during this time, but you may plan shared experiences that don’t involve children needing to be near each other, such as dancing in separate areas.
  • Even though traditional sensory and water tables are not allowed right now, you may make individual sensory boxes for each child to use daily.

Fresh air: Being outside is another factor that can reduce the spread of COVID-19.

  • Spend as much time outside as you can.
  • Open up classroom windows if possible.
  • Sandboxes must be closed during this time.
  • An extra staff person will clean and sanitize the playground between groups of children.

Dramatic play: Pretend play is an important tool for young children, especially in trying times.

  • Children may use dramatic play as a way to process what is going on around them, so if you can, have some masks available for them to explore.
  • Remove cloth items for washing after a child wears them.
  • Play versions of phones, food, dishes, and eating utensils are not allowed at this time.

Meals and brushing teeth: Changes to self-help tasks must be made at this time.

  • Meals are no longer served “family style.”
  • Find other jobs that children can do in the classroom, since they are no longer allowed to set the table.
  • Brushing teeth is not allowed in the classroom at this time.

Staff wellness: We are most present for the children when we take care of ourselves.

  • Make a plan with your supervisor that supports your own wellness.
  • Mental health consultants can support staff as well as children and families—at a distance.

I hope that this gives you a little picture of what might be different for your classroom when it reopens. Many of my agency’s open centers have found the experience to be very positive; both adults and children were happy to interact with each other again. Children adapted better than expected to staff wearing masks, the teachers found the new cleaning tasks manageable since class sizes were smaller, and laughter was shared.

Fair warning, however, that even with cohorting, not allowing any visitors into the center, temperature checking everyone who entered the building, and staff taking breaks in separate areas, we still had several sites shut down statewide, commensurate with the spike in cases my state was unfortunately seeing. Nothing is a perfect shield, but various precautions contribute to the important work of minimizing risk while children get the very important care they need.

Please feel free to use this list as an adaptable springboard for what your own center or program might need to consider and communicate to staff and families in the coming months. Thank you everyone for all the support and energy you give to early childhood education!

*Note: Remember to follow your own state’s and organization’s formal guidelines for safe teaching.

Picture1-3-1Stacia Clark has worked for multiple Head Start and early childhood education agencies over the last 14 years. She has taught in the classroom, managed several sites, supervised education staff, and is currently a Preschool Content Specialist at the Oregon Child Development Coalition (OCDC). She is also bilingual in Spanish and is an Affiliate CLASS® Trainer and coach.

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