For nearly half a century the Grace Methodist Nursery School has served thousands of pre-schoolers and their parents from Valley Stream and the surrounding communities.
In an average year, roughly 250 pre-kindergarteners attend the popular private school, becoming acquainted with the basics of social interactions, and forming some of the first friendships they will make in their lives, but after 49 years of continuous operation, Grace Methodist has had to close its doors, switching to remote learning due to the coronavirus shutdown.
“It was like the bottom fell out,” School Director Michele Shipley said. “It’s so hard, you’re used to all these wonderful people every day, they become your friends, you have relationships with them, you see the smiles and talk about the community . . . We’ve become a family, and it’s like no longer being able to see your family.”
The hardest part, she said however, is not seeing the children every day.
“We’re missing watching them grow.” She said. “That’s the best part, we’re not seeing it.”
Shipley came on as director of the pre-school this past fall, taking over for Diane Panzarino, who retired in June, 2019 after 23 years serving in the role. Shipley had been a member of the school faculty since her own children were small before taking on the directorship. This was not likely how she envisioned her first year heading up the school would go.
“It’s been a challenge,” she said, ”but I like a challenge and I like being able to continue our mission of celebrating children and childhood, even if it’s remotely.”
Despite the limits on in-person interaction, she and her staff have tried to maintain daily contact with their students through applications such as Zoom and Facebook Live, coming up with specialized activities such as remote show-and-tell and do-at-home assignments.
“A lot of the pre-kindergarten experience is socialization and we’ve had to be creative after being forced to remove that element,” Shipley said.
Among the school’s activities that have made the jump to virtual is a weekly school-wide event called “The Gathering,” in which the school’s entire teacher and student body meet for story time. Traditionally it has been done in person, but now it is held over a Facebook Live session in which Shipley leads the event.
Last week’s Gathering, for instance centered around the topic of spring, and involved a spring-themed sing-along, and discussion about the metamorphosis caterpillars undergo to become butterflies.
Patricia Minero, a teacher at the school, outlined how she adapted her lessons amid the pandemic. It was her first year at the school, and she said it was a heartbreaking disruption to a promising school year.
“Everything just kind of stopped,” she said.
With an initial uncertainty about how long the shutdown would last, Minero said she began by sending home outlines to parents on how to go about an average class day. The goal, she said, was to maintain continuity for her children.
The standard activities involved introductory lessons and associated activities on the weather, days of the week, colors and alphabet, with a new letter introduced every week.
“It was so the parents could keep up that routine,” Minero said.
Within a short while, however, she said she began receiving messages from parents that the children missed their teacher with whom they had become close with after spending the first half of the year together, and were struggling to comprehend why they and their friends suddenly had to stay home.
“It’s hard for them because they’re so little,” she said. “They didn’t understand why they couldn’t see me.”
With that, and news that the shutdown was likely going to stretch into the spring and possibly later, Minero began sending packets of activities and crafts to the parents’ homes and holding interactive lessons over Zoom, such show and tell, in which her students would show off the their completed crafts or every day household items.
Minero also sent home the student’s binders containing all of their alphabet lesson crafts so that together they could complete all of the planned alphabet activities, and keep the finished binder as a memento. Additionally, she delivered a paper Bitmoji version of herself so the students could pretend to perform activities with the small, cartoon facsimile. Minero said one student had even sent her a photo of them making donuts together.
Maintaining contact with her students, Minero said, was as important for herself as it was for her students.
After receiving the messages that her students wanted to see her, she said, “I thought ‘I’m going to do something for myself, and my kids, because I know how hard it is.’”
Now, the school is gearing up for graduation on June 12, which will look very different from how it was originally envisioned. The teachers will meet with their students over Zoom the evening before, Shipley explained, and discuss their favorite memories of the school year. Then, the next morning, the staff will hold a live-streamed commencement in the school auditorium after which the teachers will head outside, where the parents and their children have been instructed to wait in their cars, and hand off the students’ diplomas through the windows.
Like so much of life’s routines and traditions, it is a far cry from what any could have imagined just three months ago, but no matter the state of the world, Shipley said, Grace Methodist will continue to in its mission to serve the community’s young children. She encouraged parents to call, and set up an appointment to register their children for the upcoming fall. Appointment hours are on Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m..
“We’re still open,” she said. “ … We’re not sleeping, we’re still working, but you have to make an appointment, wear a mask and come alone.”