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Virtual preschools open tribalwide

A typical preschool classroom is usually an environment of bustling activity, curious minds exploring new things and teachers there to guide the way.

Due to the pandemic, today’s tribalwide preschool classroom looks very different; it takes place on a digital screen.

There are still activities, those young minds are still curious, the teachers are virtually there to help guide the way, but parents are more hands-on than ever.

Preschools tribalwide are in session through the WebEx platform.

Registration was open until Aug. 31 and about 100 children were expected to enroll.

During a typical year about 240 students attend the schools in Big Cypress, Brighton, Hollywood and Immokalee.

The children who enrolled in the virtual preschool, which began in the spring, are ages 2 and up; infants and one year olds haven’t been signing up, according to preschool director Thommy Doud.

Since the schools are virtual, non-residents have also been joining.

“I think they all enjoy it,” said Doud. “They can see that their classmates and teachers are healthy and OK. It gives them a sense of being in a group during this time when it isn’t possible to go out and see people. One of our main focuses is for them to see their friends and teachers and know we will get through this.”

One example of the creativity in virtual preschool is shown here as Big Cypress Preschool teacher Paige Gordon, upper left, reads “Little Red Riding Hood” while teacher aide Kelsey Mata plays the wolf much to the amazement of students Loraine Jumper and Justice Trujillo. (Courtesy photo)

Using the technology to its best advantage, the preschools have taken virtual field trips around the world using YouTube and different websites.

No permission slips were needed as they “went” to SeaWorld, the Disneyland Fourth of July fireworks celebration, rode the rides on the Disney 360 experience as well as various zoos and museums.

Parents help with all the arts and crafts projects; they are told what materials they will need in advance.

Doud said the preschool plans to send packets of materials to parents monthly.

“Our parents have been great, amazing and wonderful,” Doud said. “They are a part of it and we thank them so much.”

Doud used the summer as a training ground to improve the program for fall.

A lot of partners are part of the plan now, including the Health Department, which does a yoga program; the library has Friday specials and reads to the children; Language and Culture teaches language classes, which is part of the preschool’s core mission; Boys & Girls Club will be providing activities and Behavioral Health conducts Project Aware activities.

“We are trying to make the most robust program as possible,” Doud said. “We include some one on one time in the afternoons with teachers on request. It isn’t just class time.”

School starts at 9:45 a.m. and ends at noon, well before naptime. There is no proven data that says what is the best way for a virtual preschool to function, so Doud is trying to do what is best for the families.

Tools include videos and other activities parents can use at their convenience.

“Some teachers record videos of activities the children can follow along with at home,” Doud said. “It gives the parents and children more to do during the day. The parents are taking on this role, so it is our goal to give them more.”

Virtual teaching is very different than classroom teaching. Teachers are getting creative and finding interesting ways to engage the children from afar.

A reader’s theater is a popular example. A teacher and an aide appear on a split screen. The teacher reads a book such as “Little Red Riding Hood,” while the aide acts it out with a mask and sound effects.

“We find we are more like Mr. Rogers,” Doud said. “It’s kind of like producing a kids show. The teachers and aides plan them. It works and it’s amazing.”

There are certainly challenges to a virtual preschool. Connectivity to the internet is difficult in some areas, preparing the children for this type of environment is something new and parents must navigate the challenges while parenting and even teaching other children in the household.

Screens in some homes may need to be shared; preschools have no state requirements for teaching time, so older children who must attend class at a certain time, often take priority on shared devices.

“I’m excited about it, what we are doing is cutting edge,” Doud said. “We are trying to put our best foot forward. It isn’t easy, but this is the new norm right now.”

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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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