When remote means really far
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When remote means really far

Pre-K student zooms in from India

Siana Sadarangani, in the bottom row, joins the rest of her early childhood class from Temple Sinai on Zoom.
Siana Sadarangani, in the bottom row, joins the rest of her early childhood class from Temple Sinai on Zoom.

Remote learning in the time of covid has come to mean schoolchildren, hovering over laptops, iPads, or Chromebooks, joining their classmates — each hovering around his or her own personal device — to watch their teacher do a “live” teaching session or look at a prerecorded lesson.

Remote, in this scenario, simply means “not at school.”

But some students truly are remote. They’re really far away. One such child is Siana Sadarangani. When the Early Childhood Center of Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly decided to close its doors on March 12, the 5-year-old pre-K student was visiting family in India.

She is still there.

Siana joins the class by Zoom whenever she can, Sinai’s early childhood director, Risa Tannenbaum, said, and the children miss her when she isn’t there. “She’s a class member,” Ms. Tannenbaum said, and it’s important for her classmates to know that “she didn’t fall off the face of the earth.”

Remote learning took on new meaning when Siana joined her class from India. “She loves being part of her daily Zoom classes even though the time difference is huge, and she sometimes attends class looking tired,” Ms. Tannenbaum said. “Without her, the class would not be complete.”

Ms. Tannenbaum, who watches every remote class every day — the school’s students are between 2 and 5 years old — said that “when the class is together on zoom and Siana shows up, they are so excited, and so is she. When a teacher explained to one little boy that Siana is very far away — using a map to illustrate the distance — he replied, ‘but Zoom is all over.’”

When the school first closed, “We quickly had to create a plan for Zoom classes to keep the children current with the kindergarten prep and the Judaics curriculum,” Ms. Tannenbaum said. “The technology was new to us. As one teacher expressed it, zoom used to be when an airplane flew over your house.”

The teachers were apprehensive, to say the least. Still, there was little choice, since “maintaining our classroom community was very important to us,” Ms. Tannenbaum said. They knew it would be difficult for the 2-year-olds because it’s hard for them to concentrate, but the overriding concern was about socialization; the need to keep these young students with their classroom community, connected to their friends and teachers.

“We had to train the teachers,” Ms. Tannenbaum said. “It was horrible. The first two weeks, some of them were crying,” but she reassured them that it would become smoother once it became routine. Now, she said, “they’ve become more robust in their learning, connecting to all different things, like YouTube, almost as if they were at school.

“One of our nursery teachers was a yoga teacher, so she can start off the morning doing yoga. One plays guitar and is artistic,” so her program has a lot of art and music. Teachers also read stories to their students. “We have music makers, preschool boot camp, art with Miss Abbye, cooking with Erinn, and yoga with Miss Renee. There is lots of movement, with something for everybody.”

“One teacher took her phone outdoors to show the kids metamorphosis. We ordered caterpillars for the lead teachers, who took the cage outside, held up their iPads, and showed the children the process,” Ms. Tannenbaum said. They also had a unit on feelings, she added, and the teachers know that “the feelings now are different than they would be in school.”

Still, she continued, “we’re plowing through the curriculum.” She noted that if the school can get back to brick and mortar in September, it would be extremely beneficial. “But if we can’t, then we can’t start the 2s next year because they wouldn’t know the other kids or the teachers.” In addition, “Pre-K must start off in September or the children will not be ready for kindergarten. There’s so much in our curriculum. They learn to identify letters and sounds and to write upper and lower case. It takes a whole year and must start in September.”

Ms. Tannenbaum acknowledged that while almost all the children show up every day, “You can’t expect a pre-Ker to sit and watch.” Nevertheless, “The idea of early childhood is socialization. It’s hard for kids to respond via Zoom. But even if their mom just puts the laptop on the coffee table and they hear the teachers and the songs,” that’s a positive step. “And they do come over for a story.”

The students also take note of assignments, which are conveyed to parents on Sunday night so there will be ample time for preparation. Families are asked to gather ingredients so the class can do a project together during the week. They might also be tasked with specific jobs. “For example, we may say look around the house for something purple and bring it in to share.”

Of all the age groups in the school, Ms. Tannenbaum believes the pre-Ks probably benefit the most from the Zoom teaching. “But the 3-year-olds are doing pretty well also. They’re a cohesive group and love seeing each other.

“What’s nice about our school is that we have kids from all different kinds of backgrounds,” she continued. “We’re Reform, but Kesher is right across the street.” (Kehillat Kesher is an Orthodox shul right across Engle Street from Temple Sinai.) Children from Sinai’s school go on to Solomon Schechter, yeshiva day schools, or public schools, and many return for the “kindergarten reunion,” a party with pizza and ice cream that’s held a year after the students graduate from the early childhood center. “What’s funny is that they gravitate to the same corners of the classroom they did in school,” Ms. Tannenbaum said.

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