Tempe Preschool Students Have Been 'Resilient' During COVID-19 Pandemic

By Rocio Hernandez
Published: Thursday, December 10, 2020 - 5:10am
Updated: Thursday, December 10, 2020 - 8:31am

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Tempe PRE student
Tempe PRE
Tempe PRE officials say students are doing a good job of following COVID-19 public health recommendations and its teaching them to be responsible and respectful of others.

The coronavirus pandemic disrupted education nationwide and worldwide, and Tempe PRE, a preschool program by the city of Tempe, was no exception. But when students were finally able to return to the classroom in a limited capacity in August, they were ready for it, said Program Supervisor Leslie Totten.

Leslie Totten
Tempe PRE
Leslie Totten is a supervisor for the Tempe PRE program by the City of Tempe which offers full-day preschool for three and four years old. Cost is free or subsidized to income-eligible families who live in the city.

“We have never had a year in classrooms where children have been ... so well behaved and so eager to be back,” she said. "It’s just a happy place to be and the children are flourishing because they're with their peers and that’s how they learn and grow socially."

In some ways, school is still the same for these kids, but there are some notable differences. Everyone is now wearing a face mask or shield and keeping their distance even during nap time. They each have their own bag of school supplies such as scissors, markers and crayons so they don’t spread germs. Not only have students adjusted well to these new expectations, it's also taught them how to be responsible for their belongings and how to respect one another, Totten said. 

“They are doing a very nice job,” she said. “They are very cognizant of health and safety.”

Totten credits students’ preparedness, in part, to the efforts the program has been making since pandemic began to keep students and teachers connected with each other. Some Tempe PRE teachers offered their students virtual story times. Teacher Lisa Sordia would send her students activities they could easily do from home, she said.

Lisa Sordia
Tempe PRE
Lisa Sordia is a preschool teacher with the Tempe PRE preschool program by the city of Tempe in partnership with the Tempe Elementary School District. Sordia has been finding creative ways to keep students engaged in learning throughout the pandemic.

“For example, counting doorknobs. You know, that’s math. You know it’s fun,” she said. “It was kid friendly for sure and the kids were super excited and the parents absolutely loved it because it kept them sane.” 

The program started this new school year with virtual classes. At first it was challenging, Sordia said since she was working with some new students, some as young as three years old, but her parents were involved. The students themselves are resilient, Sordia said. 

“They catch on so quick,” she said. “We would take our turns to say good things in the morning and that teaches them I have to wait until Ms. Sordia calls on me and I have to have a bubble in my mouth or eyes focused, you know showing Ms. Sordia that I am ready to be called on.”

But a report by the National Institute For Early Education Research at Rutgers University found that not all preschoolers had these opportunities early on in the pandemic.

“For most parents, what they were offered in terms of support for remote learning, for many activities, was less than once a week, said Steve Barnett, the center’s senior co-director. “The other thing that we know is that parents weren’t able to keep — they weren’t able to keep up supporting remote learning when it was offered.”

And remote learning didn’t work for all families such as those with working parents or who don’t speak English, he said. 

Tempe mother Judit Candiani works from 8 to 5 so she wasn’t able to help her son Max during the day with his school work, she said. She noticed he had a hard time staying focused on his tablet. 

“Max was able to still learn but obviously I saw that he preferred always to be in his big school,” Candiani said. 

Candiani noticed a difference in Max since he’s been able to attend school in-person. 

“Once I pick up, he’ll have more things to say like, ‘Mommy I did this. I built up that. I learned the colors,’” she said.  

Steven Barnett
National Institute for Early Education Research
National Institute for Early Education Research Senior Co-Director Steven Barnett says there's been a dramatic drop in participation in preschool education when the COVID-19 pandemic. He worries about what that will mean for students.

But not all parents have felt as comfortable sending their young children back to school. The number of students participating in the Tempe PRE program went from about 350 prior to the pandemic to about 160 enrolled as of mid-November. The number of  students coming to in-person classes has dropped to 125 as COVID cases continue to rise. 

Barnett worries what missing a year of preschool will mean for these younger learners. 

“Kindergarten teachers will be facing classrooms with more children who haven’t had a strong foundation to help them prepare,” he said. “They’ll probably have more children who have behavioral problems and that makes it difficult not just to teach a child who has a behavior problem, but everybody else in the classroom.” 

It’s not clear when schools will be stable again, but Totten thinks the Tempe program has done a good job so far of following COVID mitigation strategies and making everyone feel safe. 

“Our families are happy,” she said. “Our children are happy. Our teachers are happy and I guess my hope and my goal for the remainder of the year is that we just continue.”

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Tempe PRE classroom
Tempe PRE
Students of the Tempe PRE program returned to their classroom in August for the first time since the pandemic began. Program officials say students were eager to return.
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