Pre-K levels the field in education for Fort Worth kids. But it’s hard to do online.

Every weekday morning last spring, Tamara Sapp sat down with her daughter, logged into her daughter’s online learning portal and started the school day.

Some things went better than others, Sapp said. Her daughter loved music time, but she zoned out during story time. And when her teacher gave her short assignments to help prepare her for writing, it was a struggle to get her to do them.

“She likes to bargain with me — ‘I’ll do half, and then I’ll do the other half later,’” Sapp said.

Sapp’s daughter was in pre-K last year at South Hi Mount Elementary School in Fort Worth. When COVID-19 reached North Texas and school districts across the region shut down, her daughter’s classes moved online.

Trying to do school remotely wasn’t ideal, Sapp said. Even though her daughter was only online twice a day for a half hour at a time, Sapp worried about how well she’d be able to pay attention and how much information she’d retain. She still worries about it this year, as her daughter starts kindergarten. But until schools reopen in person, Sapp knows she doesn’t have any other choice.

Education leaders and researchers say pre-K is a critically important time in students’ lives because of the rapid rate at which children’s brains are developing. A high-quality pre-K program can help close achievement gaps between at-risk students and their peers. But researchers say the characteristics that make pre-K programs effective also make them the most challenging programs to teach remotely. If districts can’t find a solution, all the benefits of high-quality pre-K could be at risk.

Hands-on education for pre-K

Texas offers free state-funded pre-K to students who meet any of several need-based requirements, including those who are homeless, qualify for free or reduced lunches or who are in foster care. Many districts across the state, including Fort Worth ISD, offer free pre-K to all students and pick up the cost for those who don’t meet the state’s criteria. Last year, the district admitted 520 pre-K students who didn’t qualify for state funding at an estimated cost to the district of $4.8 million, said Clint Bond, a spokesman for Fort Worth ISD.

“The district takes the position that this early investment in the lives of young students pays dividends for the remainder of their lives,” Bond said.

Pre-K is a crucial period in students’ educational careers, said G.G. Weisenfeld, an assistant research professor at Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research. Young learners’ brains develop and make connections quickly during that time, she said. That creates rich opportunities not only for cognitive learning, but for social and emotional growth, she said. If students receive a high-quality pre-K education, it can create benefits that follow them for years.

That development happens best when students are in a stimulating environment, Weisenfeld said. The youngest learners aren’t yet able to think abstractly or work independently, so they need interactive, hands-on activities like dramatic play and music with movement.

Those activities work well in a classroom setting, where students can interact with their teachers and classmates. But they’re difficult to replicate in a remote learning setting, Weisenfeld said, especially given the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations that young children have no more than one hour of screen time per day.

A growing body of research suggests that the benefits of high-quality pre-K can last into adulthood. And the effects are most pronounced among students at greatest risk. In 2012, the National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonprofit research firm based in Massachusetts, determined that Texas’ pre-K program helped economically disadvantaged students and English language learners catch up with their peers.

For the youngest learners, their teachers and families, the stakes are high. Unlike more advanced grades, if students miss out on high-quality pre-K programs during school shutdowns, their teachers can’t go back and help them make up for lost ground the next year, Weisenfeld said. That’s because that rapid brain growth and the learning opportunities that come with it only exist within a narrow window of a child’s development. Once that window closes, it can’t be reopened.

Preschool hit hard by COVID shutdowns

For some students, that window is already shut. According to a report released by the National Institute for Early Education Research in July, schools across the country largely failed to offer pre-K students adequate support after shutdowns began last spring. Economically disadvantaged students and students of color are expected to be hardest hit by the shutdowns, the authors wrote. Historically, those students have been less prepared when they enter kindergarten, an equity gap that pre-K programs are meant to help fix.

“The public preschool programs designed to equalize early learning opportunities, and that benefit disadvantaged groups most, have been utterly disrupted by the pandemic,” the study’s authors wrote. “Unless preschools and schools provide compensatory services with a strong focus on the most disadvantaged, inequality in educational success will rise even as the overall average declines.”

Steve Barnett, the institute’s co-director and one of the report’s authors, said that during the spring shutdowns, only about 10% of preschool students nationwide received remote instruction that was robust enough to make up for what they would have gotten in a classroom.

During a call with reporters in July, Barnett said pre-K students learn best when they do hands-on activities alongside adults and other children. Schools need to find ways to provide those learning opportunities while working remotely and re-emphasize them once schools reopen for in-person learning, he said.

“Technology is one important tool for early education, but computer programs are not a substitute for real preschool, any more than the wooden puppet Pinocchio was a real boy,” Barnett said.

Marcey Sorensen, Fort Worth ISD’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said the district learned last spring that the best way to support pre-K students during remote learning was to support their parents and make sure they had everything they needed to help their kids continue learning. The district will continue to work on those partnerships this year, she said, and officials hope parents will trust the district with their children.

“We love your kids,” Sorensen said. “We want them with us because we want to be a part of their educational journey.”

One of the key concepts in early childhood education is called purposeful play, Sorensen said. The kinds of hands-on activities that give children the best opportunities to learn often look more like playing than schoolwork. Some of those activities, like music with movement, can be revamped to work in a remote environment, she said. The key is being intentional and deliberate about the way those activities are presented, she said.

This year, the district adopted a digital learning platform called Seesaw for pre-K students. Sorensen said that new platform gives teachers more flexibility than they had last spring, allowing them to present classroom activities in a way that works best for their classes. That flexibility is important, she said, because teachers are experts not only on how to teach at their grade levels, but on what the individual students in their classes need.

It’s particularly important for the district to make sure pre-K students have a good experience because it’s almost always their first contact with the school system, Sorensen said. When they start pre-K, students have new people to meet, new routines to learn and new social interactions to navigate. Learning to handle those interactions is a major part of what students learn in pre-K, she said, and it’s embedded in everything else students learn. Teachers weave lessons about social interaction and emotional well-being into units about counting and the building blocks of reading, she said.

Tanisha Robertson-Scott’s son, Major Robertson, was in pre-K last year at Kirkpatrick Elementary School. He started kindergarten at Kirkpatrick this month. Last spring, Robertson-Scott couldn’t log in to Major’s online learning portal for the first two months of the shutdowns because of computer problems. Once she did get logged in, she noticed many of his classmates seemed wiggly and distracted by other things going on in their homes.

For Major, distance learning was hard because he didn’t have the normal routine of the school day, Robertson-Scott said. Major’s teacher kept regular communication with parents about what was going on in class, she said, but without the structure and learning environment of a school classroom, it was hard for him to focus. Having seen how it went last year, Robertson-Scott is skeptical that school districts to do pre-K effectively in a remote environment.

“I don’t think it’s possible for kids that age,” she said. “Because their attention span is already short, and then when you add the distractions of the home, it’s really hard.”

Parents can help

While it’s among the most challenging for schools to teach remotely, pre-K is the grade level where parents and grandparents are best equipped to meet their kids’ educational needs, said Michelle Buckley, director of the Early Learning Alliance. The alliance is a coalition of more than 50 organizations and individuals that seeks to improve the quality of early learning programs in Tarrant County.

Earlier this year, before COVID-19 arrived in North Texas, the group partnered with UNT Health Science Center to survey kindergarten teachers in Tarrant County about what skills were most important for students to have when they started kindergarten. Many teachers said the most important skills were related to social and emotional development and health and wellness. Those skills include asking for help when they need it, participating in activities safely and feeling safe asking questions, according to the survey.

That’s good news for families who are trying to get their kids ready for kindergarten while doing school remotely, Buckley said. The best ways to help young children develop those skills are talking to them, playing with them and reading with them — things that parents and grandparents can do without any special training or help from schools. For parents trying to keep their young children on track, the solution could be as easy as having regular conversations with them, she said.

“Simple things that parents can remember, like asking your child what did they do today, or share a memory, or tell a story,” she said. “Those seem like very simple things, but those things are helping children learn and grow.”

Sapp, the South Hi Mount mom, said her daughter liked the remote learning program the district used for pre-K last year. But Sapp could tell she missed going to school in person. Days before the start of the new school year, the school held a drive-by event for students to meet their teachers and pick up things they’d need for the first day of school. Teachers lined the sidewalks along Birchman Avenue, wearing masks, holding signs and greeting families as they drove past.

As they got ready to go, Sapp’s daughter asked if she’d be able to go to school soon. Sapp told her no, there were still too many germs.

“But I have my mask,” her daughter said. “Why can’t I go?”

It isn’t ideal for the youngest students to go to school remotely, Sapp said. But she also knows that students in Fort Worth ISD don’t have much choice, at least for now.

“That’s where we’re at right now,” she said. “There’s not that many options.”

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