A Preschool Teacher’s Perspective on the New School Year
Kirsten Bilderaya is an early childhood special education (ECSE) specialist. She works as an itinerant ECSE specialist for Adams 12 school district in Colorado at Tarver elementary school. She specializes in autism and works with two Learning Experiences—Alternative Programming for Preschoolers and Parents, for young children with Autism (LEAP) certified classrooms. In addition to working with children and teachers, she has taught parent classes for families with young children with autism, and supervises ECSE graduate students from University of Denver, and University of Colorado Denver.
ED: How did you begin your career in early childhood?
I began as a classified Early Childhood Education (ECE) Group Leader in an inclusive ECE classroom. Students in the ECE program included those who had individualized education programs (IEP)s, or who had high developmental risk factors, such as adverse childhood experiences, poverty, family separation, or English as a second language. After the fall semester, I decided this was the career I wanted to pursue and started the Master’s program in Early Childhood Education at the University of Colorado Denver. When I completed the program, I became a licensed early childhood special educator.
ED: How did you prepare to start this new school year?
In May 2020, our district surveyed families asking about their remote experience, what worked for them, and what did not. The responses received were shared with the general education teachers, specialists, and administration. As a team, we discussed what adjustments we needed to make. Personally, I prepared throughout the summer by researching ECE curriculums and programs with online components and determined which online learning programs I wanted to subscribe to for the year. I was particularly interested in online resources where I could assign specific assignments to specific students, track progress, and gather data. Once the district announced the Learning Plan it had developed through Sept 25th, I also participated in a district task force whose focus was problem-solving how to implement a hybrid model in ECE. Our ECE Special Education Coordinator set up zoom meetings with specialists to answer questions, address district guidance and directives, and worked with specialists on how students’ IEPs would be met in both in-person and remote learning. As a program, we also held discussions with ECE administration regarding space for a pull-out intervention model, safety and cleaning protocols, and personal protective equipment (PPE).
ED: What does the new school year look like in your school/classroom?
Our ECE classrooms typically have students attend for 3 hours (AM and PM sessions), 4 days per week in person. There are typically 16 students per classroom session. As a result of COVID-19, and the district’s decision for ECE to attend through a hybrid model, classroom sessions have been divided into two cohorts that can have up to 8 students per session. For example, the Ducks AM session has two cohorts (cohorts A and B). Cohort A attends in person Mondays and Tuesdays, and accesses remote learning Thursdays and Fridays. Cohort B accesses remote learning Mondays and Tuesdays and attends in person Thursdays and Fridays. ECE specialists (e.g., occupational therapists, physical therapists, early childhood special educators (ECSE), speech language pathologists (SLPs), mental health services providers and, Board Certified Behavior Analysts) provide in-person itinerant services, as well as teletherapy for remote sessions.
Minimal materials are out on shelves in the classrooms, with decreased materials on the walls. All shelving is kept clear on top to help custodial staff deep clean each day. Students are socially distanced within 3-6 feet of each other and sharing of materials is limited. While it is recommended that students in the ECE classrooms wear masks, it is required for all staff. Staff also wear face shields when working with a student within 3 feet or less. A back to school night was held outside for ECE parents. Only a couple of families were scheduled to attend at an assigned time, social distancing was required, and no parents or students were allowed in the building. General education teachers made initial contact with families through phone calls. SLPs and ECSEs called parents of students whose IEPs they case managed. The purpose of the initial phone calls was to find out whether parents were accessing the full hybrid model (both in person and remote), or preferred remote only due to COVID-19 concerns. General education staff and specialists also asked whether families had access to technology, and if not, worked with the district to get Chromebooks to families. We now primarily communicate with our families through phone calls and emails. Families who would have had a back-and-forth book at school now receive the daily updates through email.
General education staff provide both in-person and online learning. The ECE curriculum has an online component that allows teachers to create weekly lesson plans for parents to do at home. Specialists provide remote services through zoom sessions, individualized resources, accommodating lesson plans, coaching and consultation model with parents.
ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this new school year and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?
One of the challenges we have experienced this new school year is scheduling itinerant intervention both in-person and remotely. Specialists provide both intervention models for students on their caseload. Some specialists work in up to seven schools, with multiple classrooms at each school. Given that only a portion of students attend in person two days per week, and another portion are only accessing remote intervention, scheduling within the hybrid model is an ongoing challenge. Remote intervention needs to be scheduled within a family’s schedule, and specialist schedules, while not impacting students’ access to general education online learning sessions.
One other challenge the program has experience is a shortage of PPE. This is primarily due to a national shortage in personal protective gear such as protective gowns for use when providing personal care services to a student. Staff have shared with the district where the shortages are heaviest, and the district is working to get additional PPE to staff.
ED: What suggestions do you have for others (e.g., parents, educators, administrators, researchers, etc.) who want to better support our youngest students?
Flexibility is key to working through challenges encountered in both in-person and remote learning and intervention. Planning and collaboration with general education staff, parents, and specialists needs to occur regularly (possibly up to weekly), and expect any plans made to be adjusted as the school year progresses. To support parents, be available to provide resources, strategies, or simply listen as they share the challenges in their families. Work within what each family is able to take on, within the developmental stage the student is currently at. Communicate with administrators regularly about what is going well, and challenges encountered. A problem-solving mentality is important. Be patient, allow time to care for yourself and your family. If remote only, take time away from the computer—walks, stepping outside, stretching, and eat healthy. Also, celebrate small successes and approach remote sessions that did not go as planned as learning opportunities. If in-person, work with coworkers to take mask breaks outside. Laugh with your coworkers, and listen when they need to talk. Assume best intentions with staff and parents, and give grace to yourself and others. Finally, be open to learning new approaches to teaching, but don’t feel you have to learn or master everything at once. Share resources with coworkers, and reach out when you need help. Be prepared to access a very large toolbox to provide the variety of remote interventions to students, and find a balance between task-focused activities, and fun activities families can do together. Many families will need learning resources (i.e. crayons, paper, scissors, markers, glue, etc.) provided to them, and the district should be prepared to provide learning packets of materials and activities for families, as many families do not have access to printers.
I would encourage parents to reach out to teachers and specialists to ask hard questions, and advocate for your child and family. In Adams 12, our district continues to provide food, support with medical needs, access to funds, and free or reduced access to community activities (i.e. museums) to our families who qualify. The best way to support each other through current and future challenges is to communicate openly and support each other.
I want to also remind administrators to reach out to your teachers for their expertise and input in decisions. Transparent communication is important, especially as rapid decisions and changes are made.
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