Brutal Honesty: Preschool Safety Concerns Amid #COVID19

I feel it’s time for my brutally honest position regarding preschool returning to campuses amidst COVID19 outbreaks. In fact, I feel like it’s my responsibility to share my thoughts as a preschool teacher. I have written about my deep love for my classroom community, my grief about campus closure last year, and the challenges of holding virtual preschool. Now, I want to clearly state that I absolutely DO NOT support bringing preschool children together at this sad time in our national history. And before you accuse me of being political, stop and know that I am 100% advocating for the safety of my students, their families, my own family, and the teaching workforce. If you are a preschool parent or a policy maker deciding when to resume preschool in your local organization, I beg you to please read on.

First, my credentials: I am a National Board Certified Teacher with a doctorate and 16 years experience in Early Childhood Education. I tell you this so you will not dismiss me. Also, I tell you this to add weight to my next statements: Despite my years of experience and skills, I have absolutely no confidence that I can keep preschool children safely socially distanced from each other or from teachers at school. I have absolutely zero confidence that I can keep myself safe, my staff safe, or parents/guardians of my students safe. No matter how much I miss my students, no matter how much I believe in authentic learning in a preschool classroom with a highly-qualified teacher, no matter how sad I feel that my students desperately miss school, I have no confidence recommending that we return preschool children to the classroom right now during widespread COVID19 outbreaks.

And you should know that writing this blog is breaking my heart.

Safety of Students and Staff

Preschool children, especially those with Developmental Delays, are still learning how to follow adult directions and demonstrate self-control. Furthermore, young children are impulsive and do not announce their intentions before engaging in behaviors that might be considered dangerous to the health of others. Sometimes, they do things quickly that can be a total surprise to me as a teacher! Despite running a well-managed and well-supervised classroom, I can think of many instances when children engage in contact that I am actively trying to reshape, such as touching, hugging, holding hands, trying to kiss, licking, spitting, biting, scratching, kicking, hitting, or sitting too close to others. These are realities of the classroom that I want to make clear. I have written many IEP goals about decreasing such behaviors! High-contact preschool behaviors are not due to lack of classroom management, bad parenting, or bad children. This is a developmental stage that young kids pass through where they have to learn personal boundaries, social-emotional control, and the importance of following adult directions. It’s important to note that it can take longer for kids with developmental delays.

Social distancing is not in the nature of preschool children–they have the exact OPPOSITE nature. Preschool kids, in my opinion, are the MOST likely age group to pass COVID19 to each other through close contact with little warning. Young kids are magnetically pulled together to learn about each other by getting close. Just like they naturally learn by touching objects, they naturally learn by touching each other, too! Have you ever watched kids at a playground with new friends? Preschool is all about trying to teach them safe and socially appropriate ways to do this. But this learning does not happen in an instant. Trying to discourage this natural desire for closeness during school gatherings, for any period of time in any sized group, seems unrealistic to me. I have kids in Developmental Preschool as young as two years, ten months old!!!

There is no way for a preschool child to wear a mask appropriately. I have heard many adults complaining that wearing a mask is not comfortable. I whole-heartedly agree. Have you ever tried to get a preschool child to do something they don’t like? Well, I have and it’s a battle I don’t suggest. So it’s unlikely that kids are going to wear their masks willingly or properly. Even if the teacher encourages children to put their masks back on, young kids do not yet have the motor skills to do this by themselves. Therefore, putting masks back on preschool kids will require staff to touch the faces of students, possibly coming into contact with saliva or fluids from the eyes and nose if the child is wiggly or resisting. This is dangerous for the teacher and the student. Further, that teacher will need to go appropriately wash his/her hands—just to return and probably find that student (or another student) needing assistance to put the mask on again. How is this realistic? How is this safe? And how will that teacher have any time to teach?

Bodily fluid. I teach Developmental Preschool, so many of my students require diapering or other types of assistance to clean themselves after elimination. This requires staff to be in unventilated spaces very close to kids. With asymptomatic COVID19 carrying children as well as asymptomatic COVID19 carrying adult cases, this is not safe. Period. In addition to toileting, my students need help to wipe their noses, wash their hands, and deal with minor cuts. Again, this requires staff and students to be in close proximity to handle these issues. Not safe. Many of my students put items into their mouths over and over and over again. Some leave these items discarded on the floor when they tire of them—or throw them across the room. Don’t say that I’m not actively trying to stop these things! But entirely preventing these situations is not likely. Therefore, preschool cannot be safe. Further, my students are still learning healthy ways to handle coughing and sneezing. I just want to be honest: My students cough without covering their mouths, sneeze their snot all over themselves and each other, bleed all over the place before they tell someone, and drool all over themselves and other things they touch. This is not because they are bad kids. This is not because I am a bad teacher. This is because my students are very young and this is what they are learning right now. They should not come to school to practice health and hygiene right now. It’s not safe. Period.

Safety for School Staff

My unsuspecting students could ultimately infect me with the deadly virus. Since children infected with COVID19 are often asymptomatic carriers, there is no way to know if they will infect school staff when they come to school. As I mentioned above, preschool students are spontaneous. They are also very loving! I get hit with hugs like I’m a quarterback—from any angle at any time of the day. Sure, I will tell kids that we shouldn’t hug right now (a conversation that would break my heart). But don’t count on the kids remembering that. (I write IEP goals about these things that take a whole year to accomplish!) Young kids are naturally loving and affectionate toward their caregivers. I get kissed without warning, too. Kids snuggle close for reading books, when feeling sad, or when missing their parents. How damaging would it be to tell these kids to stand there apart from others and cry their sad feelings out by themselves? There wouldn’t even be pillows or stuffed animals around since those items have to be put away during COVID19. Many of my students need assistance to walk into school. Without close proximity to a teacher, they run away, wander, or fall to the ground refusing to leave their parents. Imagine me trying to keep my protective gear in place while a child is actively trying to return to his/her parents. Imagine the trauma for the parent watching this situation unfold! These experiences are not appropriate right now for anyone involved. The amount of contact that occurs between preschool students and teachers is immeasurable. It’s not safe for me. It’s not safe for my students. It’s not safe for my staff. And it’s not emotionally safe to tell kids that appropriate affectionate contact is bad either. What are the damaging effects of that?

Perpetuating the teacher shortage. I hope anyone reading this blog is aware that we have a significant teacher shortage in the United States and especially in Arizona. If we infect and possibly kill members of that teaching staff, the effects of COVID19 will be far greater than a few months of closed buildings. We will leave a wake of classrooms of kids without qualified teachers—or without any adult at all. In my context, we already struggle to find substitute teachers. Those who do sub are often in older categories that tend to be higher risk for COVID19. Also, did you know that substitute teachers are only paid about $100 a day and many states require a bachelor’s degree? I don’t see any lines forming of non-teachers willing to venture into classrooms right now. So if you are reading this and don’t feel concerned enough about the idea of dead teachers, think further about unsupervised kids in classrooms. Think about class sizes that are even larger than today. These are not good learning outcomes for the future of our educational community. And waiting to announce school campus closures is already creating attrition of teachers and staff. So our state and nation better hurry up with any announcements they plan to make.

Perpetuating shortage of classified staff. Most school organizations struggle to find paraprofessionals to support certified teachers. One major source of paraprofessionals comes from older women who enter the workforce after their children are grown. This group of women falls into the 50+ high risk age group. Where will we find individuals who are high risk of COVID19 and willing to work for $12-15 an hour? Would you do it and change diapers in preschool? The lives of my staff are far too important to put at risk in this way. Further, what about school bus drivers? My organization struggles to find bus drivers. But my preschool students qualify for transportation to provide them access to their Free Appropriate Public Education [FAPE]. How can a child walk past a bus driver to get on the bus while staying six feet away? More importantly, how many kids will walk past that driver on any given day while driving multiple routes? How many parents will shout important information into the bus (over the loud engine), leaving droplets for kids to walk through and sit in? What if that bus driver is an asymptomatic carrier? What if they are infected for the 5-day period before symptoms begin to show? We just paraded preschool children through that bus driver’s germs for multiple days. The idea is insane. Also, could driving with a mask affect a driver’s visibility? How will the bus driver and bus assistant follow social distancing procedures from each other? Is there anyone who thinks these questions have safe answers?

Safety for Our Community

Asymptomatic carriers. Inability to keep preschool kids safely socially distanced could result in detrimental effects in our community when these kids spread COVID19 among each other (or catch it from asymptomatic staff) and take it home to their families. There is a great hashtag trending right now called #NotMyKid. I would like to expand that hashtag to include #NotMyFamily. (And I am certainly saying #NotMyStudents). Right now, I am helping one of my students through grief. She lost her dad two weeks ago (not COVID19 related). And I’m crying ugly tears right now writing this. No child should go through the loss of a parent. How horrible that students might bring home COVID19, lose a parent, and later read that kids were carriers during COVID19? Should a child grapple with possibly killing their mom? Their dad? Their grandparent or baby sister? What damage could this do psychologically to the kids in our nation? (Far more damage than a few more months at home!) It pains me to delay resuming my classroom community. But it pains me more to risk students losing a family member because they wanted to come to school. Further, there is a growing trend of many kids being raised by their grandparents or having grandparents living in the home. Imagine some of my preschool students who have already lost their parents (by death or other circumstances) who might also lose their grandparent caregiver! Additionally, young families with preschoolers often have babies at home. Some have brand new babies. Are communities comfortable risking all these lives? I am not.

Illness practices in preschool. As a preschool teacher, I am the first educator interacting with families to teach them about when it is appropriate and not appropriate to send children to school. This is not an easy battle. We live in a country that finds it completely acceptable to work while sick. We spread illness to coworkers because it’s socially acceptable—or often because we don’t have enough sick time (or any at all). My students beg to come to school when they are sick because they love school. It’s hard for parents to tell their already sad kids that they also have to miss school, and some parents don’t. Now, many preschool classrooms have licensing requirements clearly stating that parents are not to send kids to school with fevers, vomiting, or diarrhea. But the sad truth is that most preschool classes are three hours or less. And medication will cover up symptoms long enough for kids to come to school. Parents often have things to do (and jobs!), and sick preschoolers are not able to entertain themselves while parents work from home. They are a mess of puddling emotions (and bodily fluid). I have called many times to have sick kids picked up from school because they were having such a rough day. Well-meaning parents apologize to say that they did not have symptoms when they left or that their child begged to come to school. And I’m talking about kids who FEEL SICK. So now enter COVID19 where kids are asymptomatic. Try to tell a not-sick kid that they have to stay home because someone in the house is sick. Try to tell a parent that they should keep their child home when they don’t have the symptoms stated in licensing policy for exclusion. Or take this for a ride: A parent who is sick with COVID19 gets to decide if they should send their asymptomatic kid to school or try to entertain them at home while they can’t breathe. We are leaving a whole lot to chance and the individual honesty of families who are in crisis. Many people have just lost their jobs and might be working new jobs without sick pay or without much time off accrued. Further, some parents may not realize that their asymptomatic kids could still infect others. Regardless of the policies and informational materials we put out, it’s just not safe—especially for preschool.

Necessary socialization between preschool teachers and families. Even if we downplay the risk of asymptomatic kids exposing teachers and each other (which I am NOT DOWNPLAYING!), there is significant risk to teachers interacting with families during Developmental Preschool drop off and pick up. First, many of my students require hand-to-hand exchange for parent drop off. In these cases, social distancing is simply not possible because the children are not yet able to walk where they are told. Instead, they run away or wander. Even if organizations switch to a procedure like a car drop off without getting out, this would still pose risk to teachers who would have to lean into cars with heavily concentrated air droplets to unbuckle or buckle kids in car seats. This also poses additional liability to organizations if teachers fail to secure a child in a car seat a family gets into a wreck! (Car seats can be so tricky and every seat is different!)

Unnecessary but likely socialization between families. In addition to the social distancing challenges of teachers trying to exchange kids with parents, there is the challenge of keeping parents from congregating and talking before and after drop off. This might have the easiest solution (in theory) since school organizations can make policies that families are not to congregate. But frankly, my state is full of people who are openly opposing social distancing rules in our community. And it seems this is true in other states as well. Preschool parents like to congregate and talk. Many are stay at home moms right now and they become friends! If you know how hard it’s been to reduce time with your friends, you can imagine what we are asking these young moms to do. My school has set guidelines that parents are not to congregate on campus following drop off. So instead, parents stand and talk in the parking lot. Yes, we discourage that, too! Whatever guidelines a preschool community puts in place, people may not follow them. And it only takes one person not following guidelines to be a problem. This leaves other community members in tough positions as they decide whether to be rude (and safe!) or awkwardly involved in proximity that they find dangerous. The safer choice is for school communities to take clear positions that protect preschool families by not giving them an option to be together during a COVID19 outbreak.

We Don’t Have Enough Science Yet 

Scientific knowledge about COVID19 continues to change daily! Last week, scientists began openly discussing that COVID19 could be airborne. This could change many guidelines going forward. Current precautions might not even protect people, and it certainly would not protect people who are in buildings together with central air conditioning. There are studies coming out about major life-threatening conditions with unclear long-term effects for kids carrying COVID19. Now THIS seems like something that might threaten a child’s academic career—far more than time at home learning remotely. With scientific headlines changing daily, how can any school organization move forward in good faith resuming any brick and mortar services right now? Scientists just don’t know enough about COVID19 yet. And I urge preschool families and organizations not to risk the lives of preschool families before these things are clear.

Preschoolers Need Stability in Their Lives

School communities are intended to be stable, and no one needs this more than preschool. Do we gather preschool kids together just to send them home again with little warning when another outbreak occurs? Please do not do this to students like mine. The greatest depression I saw in my preschool students was following the initial school closure. These are the times when my students cried the most and asked to go back to school all the time. (One of my little girls kept asking her mom if she could wake up earlier the next day to go to school!) Preschool kids don’t fully understand what is going on, and they don’t have clearly developed concepts of time. But after they adjust to being home, they are fine. Really. Parents know what they are doing. Really. Even in low income communities, we should trust that parents can make safe arrangements for their kids. Really. Preschool kids need stable home lives and stable school schedules. What they do not need is instability related to when they are home and when they are at school. Unpredictable school closures related to outbreaks will straight up break the spirit of my students. And I don’t know how to help kids through that much disappointment over and over and over again. God bless their poor parents trying to help their child through that grief.

The Flaws in Proposed Preschool Models

Some organizations are proposing smaller class sizes of preschool students and rotating days. One common example is having preschool students attend two days per week (M/W and T/Th for example) so that only half the class is together at a time. This seems to make people who really want to start preschool sigh in relief. They think: It will allow more time for cleaning. It will give more space for separation. It will be more manageable for teachers. Of course all these well-meaning people want preschool kids in school. And so do I. But I hope the arguments I laid out above give insight into the difficulty with safety for this age group, no matter the valiant efforts of the (small group) of educators who actually show up to teach preschool amidst a COVID19 outbreak.

New procedures offer false feelings of safety. No matter how small that class, each child is getting exposed to the larger family that each child is connected to. So even if one family follows precautions of only attending school and then going straight home, they have no protection from what other families are doing that their kids bring along with them to school. Rotating days is not safe. COVID19 symptoms are said to take about 5 days to appear, sometimes up to 14. So it’s irresponsible to think that the M/W class will not get exposed to the outbreak when they come to school with the exact same teachers who teach the T/Th class. It doesn’t matter if the toys are clean.

Last, I want to point out that two days of preschool each week are not an authentic, valuable preschool experience. Preschool kids spend much of their day learning routines and school skills. This can’t be taught in two days a week because there is not enough continuity. (Not to mention holiday Mondays that further decrease days in school!) Therefore, systems who are asking preschool families to attend for two days a week are asking families to take great risk for what I believe is little benefit.

What Responsibility Do We Each Have?

If you are a policy maker advocating for preschool services in a community with COVID19 surges now or in the future, I hope you have taken my perspectives to heart. Please reach out to me if I have been unclear.

If you are an educator, take the time to find out how your local organization is handling preschool. Advocate for this group of students to be the LAST back to school rather than the first. Advocate for equitable options for preschool families so that they have access to education, too. Most importantly, if your K-8/K-12 system has protected you and your students by extending closures while forcing preschool teachers and students back to school, use your energy to voice your concerns. Educators aren’t off the hook until ALL teachers and kids are safe. Think beyond yourself and your students please. Preschool teachers and students need you.

If you are a preschool parent making the decision about attending in person preschool during a COVID19 outbreak, my heart goes out to you. My advice is this: Trust yourself to do a darn good job at home right now. Or you know what: Trust yourself to do a mediocre job while keeping your house running and your babies safe. Have courage to trust your gut if you feel scared about the risks you might be asked to take. And I can say truly: Your child will bounce back. Those who choose to attend preschool right now will not get a “normal” preschool experience anyways. It will be cold, sterile, and somewhat frightening to young kids. They will sense the anxiety of their teachers, feel worried about their masks, and notice the constant sanitation procedures. Going back is not a return to normal. And no one can make you send your preschool child against your will.

If you are a parent feeling concerned about the options being offered to you in your local organization, I encourage you to speak up! You might be new to advocating for your child’s education since they are young—but your voice is valuable and you have a right to be heard. Ask for options that provide your child access to services but also help you feel that your child is safe. You have a right to a free appropriate (safe!) public education. Contact the local policy makers in your school, district, and state. Join parent groups who can speak with more unity. Join productive conversations on social media. Together, let’s protect our preschool kids in this nation. They are too precious to sacrifice!!!

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