Rising To the Challenge: Virtual Learning for Our Youngest Students

Jacey Siniff, early childhood special education teacher

When the pandemic began, oftentimes there were more questions than answers. How would equitable access to the internet be provided to students? How would the district offer meals to virtual students?

These questions were all answered in due time. One question that affected our youngest students—those in the most important years of brain development—was also crucial to answer: How could our preschool program adapt to adequately serve students in a virtual environment?

Determined to rise to the challenge of answering this question, the Early Learning team got to work.

Collaboration: the key to success

Preschool is inherently collaborative. In one week, a student may encounter a teacher, paraprofessional, and an early learning facilitator. If the student has an individualized educational plan (IEP), depending on their needs, they may also encounter a special education teacher, speech language pathologist, occupational therapist, and physical therapist.

All of these specialists work together with the family as an equal partner. This collaborative nature took a front seat during summer planning sessions.

“Everything we planned, we planned together,” explains Abbie Petsche, early learning facilitator and content lead. “We especially designed students’ asynchronous time—time outside of live instruction—to be an opportunity for support staff to work directly with students on their specific goals.”

“Sometimes the speech language pathologist will sit in on a virtual classroom session to observe a student and even meet separately with families,” adds Jacey Siniff, early childhood special education teacher. “We check in with each other throughout the week to make sure we’re supporting families the best way possible.”

Collaboration was a major component to planning, and so was preserving the basic principles of preschool.

“We knew we needed to allow students to learn through exploration and play as they normally do in preschool, so we provided students with the materials they needed to do this,” says Abbie. “Everything always came back to the skills preschool students need to develop. The materials and activities promote academic skills, as well as problem solving, persistence, large and small motor skills, communication, and social skills.”

Partnership with families

A 3- or 4-year old who is learning virtually crucially needs the hands-on support of a parent or caregiver. For the most part, they are not trained to teach.

“We identified early that parents would need coaching,” says Colleen Fangman, early learning facilitator. “Currently, parents receive around 15 minutes of one-on-one coaching each week so they can best help their child.”

“The coaching helps parents allow their student to drive their own progress,” Jacey adds. “The parent’s role is to guide, and sometimes we even help them take their foot off the gas pedal.” To supplement one-on-one coaching, Early Learning team members also developed instructional videos for families.

In addition to planning for parent coaching, the Early Learning team also built out units over the summer. Keeping equity in mind, virtual and in-person schedules were structured similarly so students receive the same three hours of instruction no matter their chosen learning environment. That meant that in addition to asynchronous learning, the team would need to develop synchronous learning for virtual students—something that was not being attempted elsewhere in the region.

Synchronous learning sessions are once-a-day 20-minute live learning sessions with a teacher, a paraprofessional, and approximately four preschool students. Students were given a binder at the beginning of the semester that was assembled by the Early Learning team with materials they can follow along with, including an alphabet arch, sorting activities, and tools for writing their name.

“In preschool, it’s very important for students to have routines,” explains Abbie. “The binder is a routine so students have something that’s predictable and can physically see their progress.”

Learning together with their peers

At the beginning of a synchronous learning session, a teacher holds a student’s name behind a sheet of paper, slowly revealing one letter at a time. Together, students sound out the name until the full name is revealed.

“S–!” “SA–!” “SAM!”

This activity may seem simple at first glance, but actually accomplishes several objectives simultaneously: identification of letters and letter sounds, increasing social interaction among students, and maintaining student engagement.

Leland, a 4-year old preschooler, is one of the district’s 200 preschoolers in a virtual learning environment.

“Since the beginning of the school year, Leland’s writing has gone from just lines to identifiable figures,” explains his mother, Melissa Garcia. “Not only have his skills improved, Leland has loved the small group sessions and socializing with other students.”

Socializing with his peers is something Leland looks forward to. “His biggest improvement has been in his social skills. He’s learning things like how to physically approach other students,” explains Melissa.

Not only does she see her son benefitting from preschool, Melissa has been impressed with his teachers.

“I like how fast my questions are answered—it’s literally a matter of minutes before I get an answer about something I don’t understand,” says Melissa. “I also appreciate how Leland’s teachers treat him respectfully, not like a toddler.”

The unique experience has had an unexpected effect for their family. “This experience has been very positive,” adds Melissa. “It’s brought us together as a family even more.”

Cedar Rapids Community School District currently has openings for 4-year old virtual preschool. Learn more, including how to apply here.



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