The show must go on: Teaching online Kindergarten at Oak Knoll School in Menlo Park
Oak Knoll School kindergarten teacher Trish Stella says she loves when a student performs a play about King Tut, or when they finally get to watch silk worm larvae hatch — but it certainly hits differently through a screen. Like all schools in the Bay Area, Oak Knoll closed its doors on March 16 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. But the challenges of schooling young children remotely continue to get their teachers’ attention.
“Education is their right, and they deserve an education. So how ever we deliver that, we have to do the absolute best we can,” says Stella, who considers remote learning one of the biggest challenges she’s faced in her 33 years as a teacher.
Comments Superintendent Erik Burmeister: “The challenges are vast and ever changing…it is difficult to know what to expect because answers and solutions are elusive when the conditions change so rapidly.”
Oak Knoll was proactive as the COVID-19 pandemic crept into the Bay Area, already making Friday, March 13, an optional school-day. Classes began online on Monday, with the hope of returning after Spring Break on April 6. The teachers quickly realized, however, that they were in it for the long haul. After Spring Break, they embarked on what is now two months of upholding a fundamental social and learning period for elementary school students, especially for kindergarteners.
“It’s their academic foundation,” says Stella. “[Kindergarten] is how it all starts, so you need to have a continuum even in a crisis like this.” She explains that not only do children need consistency in their learning, but that playtime and social interactions with their peers is crucial to development. That is also why PE, art and other specialized courses are still offered to all students.
With their young age in mind, the kindergarten teachers at Oak Knoll decided to meet their students in groups of just two at a time for 30 minutes twice per week, and post activities to a program called Seesaw. Stella’s days are packed: She spends her time meeting with groups, grading or posting activities, planning lessons, answering questions from parents in an open Zoom session, responding to individual needs, and dealing with the daily spontaneity of being a kindergarten teacher.
Stella has gotten creative to better mirror the classroom feel because, as she says, “There is nothing more magical than that.” On Fridays, Stella emulates the weekly ‘Free-Choice Fridays’ with a collective Zoom call where the kids can interact and play virtually. She emulates her ‘Morning Circle’ with a daily video that warms the class up and covers what to expect for the week. Her students read to her and present her their proudest work. Even the science unit lives on, as she sent a student home with silk worm larvae before school closure.
Regardless of how difficult it is for kindergarteners — who are typically only five years-old — to use technology on their own and to stay focused for long periods of time, Stella says that they are doing the best that they can. “And we’re lucky to be in Menlo Park doing distance learning, because it’s not equitable in other districts and other places,” she emphasizes.
Oak Knoll has loaned iPads and Chromebooks to any students who need them, in addition to internet hotspots for families in need of better internet-access, says Parke Treadway, the school’s Public Information Officer. The Menlo Park City School District (MPCSD) is also continuing to provide lunch and breakfast to families through the federal free and reduced lunch program, and have started the MPCSD Helps initiative to provide food security to families.
With regards to the Fall, Superintendent Burmeister says that while much is uncertain, returning to campus is likely but with a very different schedule that considers social distancing, infection tracing and preparing families for this new-normal. Burmeister adds that “Our teachers are real heroes.”
Author Sofia Bergman is a Menlo-Atherton High School alumna who recently graduated from Journalism School at Northeastern University.
Photo by Jelena Knoss