Sindy Cutler always smiles. That’s something she wants people to know, especially her 2-year-old students.
That’s why before the academic year kicked off, she arranged a special call with each of her students, showing them what she looked like with her mask on and off. And just in case they forget, she’ll be wearing a button with a picture of her unmasked face to work every day.
But mask or no mask, Cutler wants her students to know she will be smiling regardless.
And there’s a lot to smile about at Riverdale Temple Nursery School, which reopened its doors Sept. 8. Well, more aptly, it reopened its parking lot.
Don’t worry, students won’t be learning in the parking lot. But that’s where they held a two-day meet-and-greet with parents and teachers to kick off what will likely be an academic year unlike any other. Their schooling began later in the week, with two half-days that Thursday and Friday. The first full day of school was Sept. 14.
Like every other school in the city, the nursery school closed its doors in mid-March in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But health crisis or not, the show had to go on. Routine is paramount in early childhood education, according to Sandi Daniels, a universal pre-K teacher at the school. Whether in the classroom or meeting over the online videoconferencing app Zoom, teachers should stick to that daily routine, whether it’s calendar time then storytime, or storytime then calendar time.
“It makes them feel more secure, which is most important,” Daniels said. “Especially nowadays.”
Even while they were remote, school director Alexandra Abikzer wanted to make in-person nursery school a reality come September. While her teachers did what they had to do remotely, Abikzer recognized remote learning isn’t ideal for young children.
“We believe that nursery school should be a fun, loving safe space for the children,” she said. “I think it’s important that the kids have a routine and that they’re just getting back to some kind of normalcy.”
While the issue of reopening schools is on many people’s minds lately, there are some unique factors to consider at nursery schools. For instance, will the children be able to socially distance and keep their masks on?
To Abikzer, the mask concern might be a misplaced anxiety. In fact, she thinks it might be directed at the wrong people altogether.
“Kids are resilient, and I think that we don’t give them enough credit,” Abikzer said. “At the meet-and-greet, the kids all came with their cute masks, and they had no problem. It’s the adults that are really fidgeting and having a harder time with it.”
Of course, there will be other new safety measures in place. But coronavirus-related procedures will be just another routine for the students to follow.
“In order for them to come on the playground, everybody had to have their temperature checked, and then we put some lotion on their hands,” Cutler said. “And that’s what we will do every morning when they enter the school.”
In the classroom, the teachers are focused on maintaining as much social distance as possible. Last year, Cutler would have six students sitting at a table at a time. But this year, only four are allowed, with a push for just two or three. And Daniels’ classroom now has dividers, names on chairs and individual supply sets for each student so they don’t need to share.
The school also uses “pods” to distance from other classes. Each pod will have its own room and bathroom, and its members will only be allowed to play with others in their pod. That way, if someone does test positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, only the affected pod would have to go remote, Abikzer said. That’s much better than shutting down the entire school.
How teachers will address the pandemic in the classroom might vary depending both on the teacher and the ages of the children they teach. Cutler’s toddlers might not understand words like “pandemic” or “COVID-19,” but they can absolutely sing songs about washing their hands and telling the germs to “go away.”
“I will sing the (hand-washing) song every day this year with these children,” Cutler said. Using the melody from the popular nursery rhyme “Frère Jacques.”
“It’s, ‘Tops and bottoms, tops and bottoms, in between, in between. All around our hands, all around our hands. Now they’re clean, now they’re clean.”
The past six months have been difficult for most everyone. But to Daniels, they might have been longer and harder for the city’s youngest residents, making a return to nursery school all the more important.
“I want to give back some of their childhood that they’ve lost,” Daniels said. “I want it to be as normal and as chill as possible. I just want them to come in and be happy here.”