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Preparing to Go Back to Preschool in A Pandemic: 'Fun, but in A Different Way'

Maria Gutierrez teaching LAUSD preschoolers from the virtual classroom she's created in her home.
Maria Gutierrez teaching LAUSD preschoolers from the virtual classroom she's created in her home. This week, some LAUSD preschoolers return to campuses. | Courtesy Maria Gutierrez
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The following article was originally republished April 12, 2021 through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.

Story by Mariana Dale

Among the Los Angeles Unified School District campuses reopening Tuesday are 11 of the district's 88 early education centers, attended by kids 2 to 4 years old.

More than three-quarters of early education center families enrolled filled out the return to campus form, and 40% of those want their children to continue learning online, while 60% opted for in-person instruction, according to a Los Angeles Unified spokesperson.

With kids under 5 returning to the classroom — some in person for the first time — get ready for Big Feelings from adults and little ones alike.

"Changing something that we've done consistently for a year and a half is going to be a disruption for the whole family," said Altadena licensed clinical social worker and counselor Nakeya Fields.

We asked Fields and a few other local experts about what families can expect as they transition their children back to preschool, and what they can do to prepare.

For tips on helping older children get ready for school, take a look at this story.

Parents and Caregivers, Let's Take a Minute

Sending a kid off to school or daycare for the first time could be an emotional ride even in the Before Times.

Today, preparing little ones to go back to school as LAUSD begins to reopen.
How to Talk to Kids About Going Back to School | Apr. 12

Add constantly shifting public health guidelines and the will-they-won't-they-when-will-they of school reopening in these pandemic days, and "it's also very normal and natural to be pretty frustrated," said licensed psychologist Chris Leucht, who directs the birth to 5 program at behavioral health non-profit Pacific Clinics.

"The first thing would be for parents to check in on their own feelings, and try and manage those so that they can be there for their kids," Leucht said.

It can be as simple as having a conversation with another adult and dropping in a "can I take a minute and tell you how I'm feeling about (child's name) going back to school?"

"Just in the process of talking about it, we realize feelings that were there, but we weren't really aware of them," Leucht said.

Take a (Virtual) Tour

"The more familiarity kids have with what's going to happen, and where, the better," Leucht said.

While an in-person tour of the school might not be an option, talk to your child's teacher about taking a virtual visit to their new classroom. Some schools have already posted videos on their websites.

 An example of the health screenings that LAUSD will ask families to complete.
An example of the health screenings that LAUSD will ask families to complete. | Chava Sanchez/LAist

There will also be some new procedures to learn. Students at LAUSD's early education centers will need to stay at least six feet apart from their peers and teachers.

But what does six feet mean to a 3-year-old?

District early education teacher Maria Gutierrez uses examples, like the length of a comfy couch or two big dogs kissing, to help children understand social distancing.

"We are still going to have fun, but in a different way," Gutierrez said.

For example, instead of hugging a classmate hello, she's talking to students about different, less-touchy greetings like waving air hugs, blowing kisses and peace signs.

Maria Gutierrez is participating in an ongoing LAist project that invites caregivers to document their lives through photos. Check out year one of the project, Parenting: Unfiltered.

New Routines

You might have heard a lot about routines and why they're so important to help young kids navigate the world.

A new one to establish is how you'll say goodbye to your child at the start of the school day.

Leucht suggests something "caring and consistent and predictable, and hopefully also brief." He said it's normal for a child to cry for five to 15 minutes afterward, and in his experience, a long goodbye doesn't reduce the tears.

Fields said the start of school is an opportunity to remind kids that even though they may be apart from you for several hours during the day, there's a safe and predictable time to be together each week.

"Identify things where the children have space, where they know they belong," Fields said.

She suggests picking an activity to remind them of that's both easy to commit to and look forward to each week. Examples include family movie night, listening to a favorite music playlist together, walking or gardening.

Make School Sound Fun

"Kids really take a lot of cues from their caregivers about how to react to things," said Leucht, of Pacific Clinics. "And if the caregivers are really positive and excited and enthusiastic, more often than not, kids will follow that lead."

Talking with enthusiasm about the friends they'll meet or what they'll learn is one way to help kids get excited about the upcoming transition.

Grace, Patience and Compassion

Everyone LAist talked with acknowledged that this time of transition will come with challenges and frustrations — and may lead to moments we'd like to take back.

That's OK.

"Just take a deep breath and acknowledge how you feel," Fields said. "Reaffirm that it was a lesson versus you're a bad person because that happened. Reaffirm that it was something that you were supposed to learn because you experienced it and then move on from it."

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