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Preschoolers head back to class in Rockville Centre

Buildings reopen with virus protocols in place

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Rockville Centre’s youngest students have returned to classrooms around the village over the past few weeks, giving families, educators and the children themselves a sense of normalcy. The guidelines for preschools are different from those for public schools, falling under the state Department of Health’s child care program, so each school has been able to develop its own plan for reopening while following distancing and safety guidelines.

On Sept. 29, two weeks later than normal, students returned to the preschool program at the John A. Anderson Recreation Center, which offers classes for 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds. “It’s been great,” Karen Polito, the center’s acting superintendent, said. “The kids were so happy to come back and see their teachers, and especially to see their old friends, many of whom they hadn’t seen since March.”

On the first day of classes, Mayor Francis X. Murray and Village Trustee Nancy Howard greeted students and parents. “There were a lot of smiles, and only a few tears,” Polito said. “Sometimes it’s harder for the moms than for the kids.”

Students’ temperatures are checked and they must wear masks when they enter the building, but the masks are not required during their two-and-a-half-hour school day. Staff members do wear them, however, and the recreation center is cleaned between sessions. Social distancing protocols include staggered start times and smaller class sizes. Because the center has plenty of space, Polito said, classes are divided into two sections but overall enrollment did not have to be reduced. With the gymnasium in use, though, no public classes are offered during preschool hours.

United Church Nursery School on Morris Avenue also checks each child's temperature upon entry, has implemented staggered start times and reduced class sizes slightly. The school has served 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds for about 60 years and welcomed back about 80 students last month. They decided to require 3- and 4-year-old students to wear masks in the building, according to the school's co-director Amy Barriocanal.

"Our feeling was that kids find the masks to be fun, and it actually seems easier for them to wear them than for adults," Barriocanal said. "It's working so far."

St. Mark’s Cooperative Nursery School, on Hempstead Avenue, welcomed students back on Sept. 21 after a six-month closure and many discussions among school directors and parents. Those involved said that pre-opening anxiety levels were high, but once the children returned, parents and teachers alike felt a sense of relief.

“We’ve been working for the past four to five months toward reopening,” Michelle Creegan, the school’s director, said. “It was so nice to welcome the families back and to see the little ones literally bouncing back and forth. I felt like I breathed for the first time in months.”

In March, the nursery school, which has operated for 52 years, had to shut down along with all other schools in the state. It pivoted to a virtual learning format, and provided parents with materials and information so they could work on activities with their children. Creegan explained that those activities facilitate development in different ways. Some help fine motor skills; others, large motor development; while others build a foundation for reading and math skills.

“Having that structure and reassurance is good for parents,” Creegan said. What the in-person model provides that the virtual cannot, she said, is the chance to develop social skills. “Children learn through play,” she said. “Putting things together is important on so many levels. Working through problems is the whole purpose of this age, and it’s hard to get that in a virtual environment.”

Creegan said that school administrators kept an eye on day care facilities as they opened during the summer, formed a reopening committee and felt that, with the state Covid-19 infection rate remaining low, “It’s a good risk to take.”

In creating a reopening plan, “We did try to honor what makes us ‘us’ while following the guidance,” Creegan said. That includes allowing children to play together and encouraging them to share toys. “That’s part of the preschool experience, to use their creativity to engage with peers,” she said. “It’s moving from parallel to active play. Remote learning is not ideal for this age group.”

To prevent large gatherings, the school has staggered its start times and does not allow parents to enter the building at drop-off. Instead, the teachers greet the children outside and escort them inside. St. Mark’s has also kept classes smaller — 10 4-year-olds instead of 17 or 18, and eight 3-year-olds rather than 10 to 12. There is no extended-day option.

“We’re trying to restrict the intermingling of all groups,” Creegan said. “We want each class to operate as a family unit.”

Gina Knecht, board president of the school, said that parents offered a lot of input on the reopening plan. “We were constantly partnering with parents to discuss reopening and the problems belonging to us,” she said.

Knecht’s 3-year-old son returned to the classroom last month. “It was so exciting, and it felt so normal,” she said. “He was so excited to see his friends, and it didn’t feel overwhelming at all.”

While Knecht and Creegan agreed that remote learning is far from ideal for this age group, Knecht acknowledged that it’s important to recognize that for some families, sending children to school isn’t the best option right now, “and they will be OK.”

The first day was only an hour long, so the children could experience a “gradual separation” from their parents before getting into the regular schedule. “We bring them in slowly,” Creegan said. “It’s a slow transference of love for the children, from parents to the teachers and to the school.

“There’s a lot of anxiety in adults,” she added, “but kids are resilient.”

Jacob’s Ladder preschool director Robyn Teigman echoed that sentiment, noting that the past four weeks had been an adjustment for everyone at her school. “We’re definitely stressed, there’s high anxiety, but things are going smoothly,” Teigman said.

She said she had kept parents updated on new protocols since August, and they had been both appreciative and cooperative. One new policy is that any child who is sick must have a doctor’s note to return, and Teigman said that parents had been diligent about keeping their children home with even the slightest ailment. And even though there were extra sanitizing and distancing measures in place, she was happy to be back in school.

“It’s good to be back, and the kids are beyond happy to be back,” she said. “It feels normal.”