Mornings begin the same for every student at BedRock Preschool. Once they walk through the doors of the Arlington Avenue school, they sanitize their hands and have their temperatures checked, all while their parents fill out a COVID-19 questionnaire about symptoms, travel and exposure.
But this is nothing new to BedRock’s students. In fact, sometimes, a student will be so familiar with the routine they’ll walk up to educational director Valarie Simmons and ask for the hand sanitizer by very matter-of-factly saying, “I need my foam.”
Following a routine might be monotonous or annoying to adults, but for early childhood and elementary school students, it’s absolutely vital, according to Alexandra Abikzer, Riverdale Temple Nursery School’s director. They thrive on predictability, and love knowing what comes next — whether it’s the getting-ready-for-school routine, the bedtime routine, or any routine in between.
“A schedule and a routine make them feel safe,” Abikzer said. “And when things are too open-ended, then they might feel instability. They could be anxious or act out. So when things are structured and they know what to expect, it’s healthy for them.”
But maintaining routines might be a bit more difficult to implement this time around, particularly because of hybrid and remote learning in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Students might know which days they’re supposed to go into school, but days inside a campus building likely look different from those learning at home.
And then, of course, there’s always the possibility school buildings will go fully remote, should the weekly positive coronavirus test rate rise too high — which was exactly what happened to the city’s public schools just a couple weeks ago.
Neither Riverdale Temple nor BedRock were forced to move online during the recent citywide closures with their universal pre-kindergarten programs. But they did need to go online last spring, during the first coronavirus wave.
And the question remains: How can parents facilitate some form of predictability during a school year that’s continuing to be unpredictable week after week?
Students learning remotely should mimic their school routines as closely as possible, Simmons said — even the ones that usually take place inside the school building.
“We want to make sure that they feel safe and comfortable in their home environments,” she said. Parents “should set times for certain learning activities — napping, eating, toileting and washing hands.”
In addition to closely following the school’s routines, students also should continue following their getting-ready-for-school routines. Even if they’re not physically going anywhere, children shouldn’t be “going to school” in their pajamas, said Nina Velazquez, parent coordinator at P.S. 81 Robert J. Christen. And they shouldn’t be rolling out of bed five minutes before school starts, without brushing their teeth or eating breakfast.
One thing that might fall to the wayside during remote learning is physical exercise. But Velazquez doesn’t think that makes it any less important. Many families who live close to the school will walk there and back each day. And even if there’s nothing going on in the building for the time being, that doesn’t mean students can’t still walk to their school — or bus stop or family car — and back every morning for a bit of exercise.
“What that does is it just gets your body moving,” Velazquez said. “And you’re awake and ready to start your day.”
Likewise, many younger children spend time outside during recess. And parents can make sure their children get some time to exercise at the same time they normally would at school. Because if adults can experience “Zoom fatigue” after an hour-long meeting, children learning remotely for hours a day certainly can, too.
But what if parents don’t really know what their children do minute-to-minute in their classrooms? There’s nothing wrong with reaching out to their teachers and asking, so parents can give their children as close to an in-building school experience as possible, Simmons said. And, at least at Riverdale Temple’s nursery school, teachers typically have their schedules at the ready each day.
“We usually have a schedule posted, in a kid-friendly way, so that they can see what is involved that day, and so they can know what to expect,” Abikzer said. “This is set up early in the year, and the teachers really spend a lot of time on teaching routines and learning the schedule.”
Even if parents don’t have the fun charts and classroom supplies preschools and elementary schools have, they can still get creative with what they have lying around the house. Simmons suggests using cotton balls or marshmallows for children learning to count. And at-home science lessons could be as simple as checking the weather every morning and making a chart, or growing some plants together.
“There’s endless possibilities of ways to be inventive and creative while making education fun as a parent,” Simmons said. “We just have to think outside the box to create structure for the kids.”
And structure is exactly what children need in a time of upheaval like a pandemic — especially when it’s impacting nearly every aspect of their young lives. Velazquez believes they need something stable to hold onto during this time, even if it’s as simple as a day-to-day schedule.
“There’s a lot going on in the world right now,” she said. “Parents are losing jobs. Parents are scrambling for child care. So for kids, (routine) is like the only thing they have right now. So when you take that away, I just don’t think they feel secure.”