Learning to adapt for preschools in the era of COVID

Schools across the nation closed in March due to the coronavirus outbreak. Many, including those in the San Francisco Bay Area, continue to conduct classes remotely.

Remote learning, however, is a challenge, especially for the youngest students. Several preschools have adapted to reopen during the pandemic in their own ways, while maintaining their core Nikkei values.

Enrollment’s Down, But Expenses Are Up

Nihonmachi Little Friends adapts to the coronavirus pandemic. courtesy photo

Nihonmachi Little Friends in San Francisco’s Japantown and ABC Preschool in the city’s Richmond District have both resumed in-person instruction in the new school year, but each school has taken extra precautions to ensure the safety of both students and staff.

ABC Preschool staff members disinfect the school throughout the day, said Kumiko Inui, the school’s director.

Enrolling around 35 students prior to the pandemic, ABC currently accommodates 24 students out of Pine United Methodist Church. Five more students attend the school via a combination of instructional YouTube videos and Zoom gatherings. Though the school is running at a reduced capacity, Inui said the school’s expenses are comparable to before the pandemic because it needs the same number of staff to keep the school clean and the children safe.

Likewise, Cathy Inamasu, executive director of Nihonmachi Little Friends, said her preschool is running at approximately half of its previous capacity. The reduction, especially among private families attending the preschool, has been a financial challenge.

“We have government contracts, which have been very helpful, because they’re also being very lenient during this time and trying to help us retain the full contract even though they know we’re not at full capacity. But it’s the private-paying families that we can’t enroll to our full capacity,” she said.

Despite the reduced capacity, Inamasu said the school now hires their cleaners to do a deep clean every day, and teachers are constantly disinfecting the classroom and getting monthly coronavirus tests. She added that she has asked parents to keep their children home if anyone in the family is sick.

“The Health Department says that kids can have colds but still come in, but we’re saying ‘no,’ because that means they’re constantly washing — blowing their nose, getting their mask wet, and you have to wash your hands and that’s a little too much on the staff to have to constantly do, so the parents have been really good about it,” she said.

Although both schools have instituted social distancing rules and have faced reduced enrollment, both Inamasu and Inui said their respective schools have been able to accommodate the students who wished to return for in-person classes.

According to Inamasu, some parents decided not to send their students back to school. Some have said a family member has a pre-existing health condition, others prioritized being able to continue visiting grandparents or other family members. She also said that some families have moved out of the city.

“We have a number of families who have left San Francisco and the state,” she said. “If you can work anywhere, remotely, why not move to someplace that’s a little less expensive. So, we had an unexpected move of — maybe about five families.”

Ryan Kimura, a parent at Nihonmachi Little Friends, said he decided to send his daughter to school after considerable debate with his wife. “We flip-flopped, it felt like 100 times,” Kimura said. He and his wife, however, felt safe in sending their daughter after they each attended a half-day orientation at the school.

“When we saw all the safety measures that were in place and just saw how much she enjoyed being there, we were like, ‘yeah we got to let her go to school.’”

Likewise, Minako Burrows decided to continue sending her daughter to school in August once ABC Preschool reopened. She and her husband “learned the school was reopening in August, but we really debated sending her back. My husband said it was too soon, that it’s still dangerous, … I was also on the fence,” Burrows said in Japanese.

Making It Work

ABC Preschool adapts to the coronavirus pandemic. courtesy photo

While many parents sent their children back to school at the end of summer, others refrained from doing so. Makiko Schultz, another parent at ABC, said her husband expressed deep concerns over letting their children go to school. The couple ultimately decided to keep their younger son in ABC’s remote program since Schultz’s husband works outside the home and she alone could not pick up and drop off her son at the preschool while their older son was still taking classes online.

“If you have one child doing classes online and another attending school, you need two parents no matter what,” Schultz said in Japanese.

And as her older son began attending school in person in November, Schultz said her younger son also began attending preschool in person.

In San Jose’s Japantown, Lotus Preschool temporarily resumed in-person learning over the summer, but the school returned to remote learning as COVID cases started to climb in late July.

Lynne Yamaichi, the school’s director, said the school’s shift to an online format has been smooth, thanks to parents being patient with teachers learning how to adapt to an online classroom. “Initially, the challenges were, because everything closed so suddenly with the shelter-in-place, that I don’t think we knew exactly what we were going to do, in terms of how we’re going to continue teaching,” she said.

Stephanie Lee, a parent at Lotus and a high school teacher in the East Side Union High School District, which serves students in both San Jose and Santa Clara County, was impressed with how quickly the preschool was able to start teaching on Zoom. “Before we even had plans as a school district on how we were going to get kids re-engaged and learning to finish up the school year, Lotus was already brainstorming and so thoughtful and keeping communication up with us,” she said.

Although parents and teachers have a hard time balancing the needs for both safety and a constructive learning environment, both recognize that this situation is far from ideal and children are not impervious to the stress associated with the pandemic.

“I think it’s just so hard for them when they’re that young. They miss being with their friends. They can’t always verbalize it, … but I think it’s been tough for them to be away from everyone,” Cindy Kaneshiro, a parent at Lotus Preschool, said.

Likewise, Kimura said while his daughter has adapted to going to school, she in turn misses the rest of the extended family.

“Maya just sat down in the middle of the sidewalk and she just started crying because she talks about how much she missed seeing all of her cousins and grandparents. So, as much as a trooper she is, I think we have those moments where we realize, ‘Damn, this thing is a lot,’ it’s taking a toll.”

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