The world of early childhood education is fraught with unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the Early Childhood Education and Family Engagement Specialist at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, I have the unique privilege of working directly with both educators and families from across the community – and a particular lens into both experiences. Educators well versed in child development know that virtual learning is not ideal for children. Among many concerns, preschool administrators know the financial difficulties and uncertainties parents are facing, yet still need tuition payments to pay their staff. Parents face the seemingly impossible situation of working from home while caring for their children.
However, despite these challenges, there have been moments of joy, as well as lessons learned. Educators have been given the opportunity to discover new ways of doing things that can help inform and strengthen our practice as we envision our early childhood programs in the future. Early childhood facilities are rising to the challenge imposed by stay-at-home orders, while learning new technologies to help maintain their connection to their students, families and staff. Talented teachers are using their creative energies to develop meaningful and engaging virtual experiences, connecting with young children over a screen, sustaining these important relationships. This sudden pivot has not been without its difficulties, but it has also offered teachers the opportunity to really see their students.
These virtual learning experiences also present the unique opportunity for educators and parents to partner in their children’s education. Parents experiencing first-hand the carefully planned lessons that teachers create are now better able to see their children as the amazing learners they are. The opportunity for teachers and parents to work with each other to support the children in their social, emotional and cognitive growth is a gift that will continue to positively influence their role in the child’s learning and development.
As for early childhood directors, their dedication and expertise are inspiring. Working tirelessly, they continue to pivot in-person programs to virtual platforms and support their teachers in doing so. I regularly witness them checking in on the emotional well being of teachers, parents and students, while simultaneously assessing the needs of each. At the same time, they are navigating the complicated details of reopening, even when there are still more questions than answers.
I find motivation in the many ways educators are coming together as a source of strength and support for one another; continuing to share information and struggles, to question and plan and to lift each other up while navigating the strange road ahead together. The opportunity to build collaborative and meaningful relationships with each other will continue to provide support as schools work out the uncertain details of reopening and reinventing their early childhood programs.
These new virtual settings have also helped establish a greater connection within our Jewish community. People of all ages, including large numbers of families still quarantining with young children, are finding new meaning in coming together. More people than ever before are logging on to programs like Tot Shabbat and Shabbat Sing at their schools, synagogues and JCCs. When days and weeks blur into one, Shabbat has become a way for families to mark time, to gather and celebrate during a season when celebratory moments are few.
Underscoring this resurgence of Shabbat observance is the fact that Jewish early childhood educators give families the tools they need to participate. It is a testament to the work that we have done throughout the years – and that we continue to do even through new platforms – to teach families and their children the values, rituals and language of celebrating Shabbat.
Yes, the road ahead is paved with challenges; the health and safety, fiscal and pedagogical concerns are many. But we owe it to our children, our families and our community to forge ahead. Though there are many unknowns, educators will diligently continue to plan. We remain devoted to capturing moments of joy and discovery, while bringing to fruition our vision of high-quality early childhood education no matter what conditions we face.