Berkeley preschools discuss living, working amid COVID-19

Photo of the Montessori Family School
Gabriel Nuer/Staff
Several early education programs throughout the city of Berkeley provide valuable resources and tools such as opportunities for social development and structure for young children to succeed in their future educational careers.

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As the Berkeley community slowly adjusts to living with COVID-19, multiple early childhood educators say the role of preschools and Montessori school instruction for young children remains as “critical” as ever.

Through the pandemic, children lost many opportunities for social interaction, said Olga Hristova, director of Fox & Bear Child Care and Preschool in Berkeley. Beyond experiencing social interaction with others, children are taught how to ask for assistance from people outside of their families.

“Attending preschool is very important; it’s vital for developing social skills, especially after COVID,” Hristova said. “We see kids who forgot how to play.”

Hristova added that earlier education typically has a lower student/teacher ratio, which can allow for small, “friendly” environments where children can develop these skills.

June Sheffield, director and owner of the Sheffield Preschool in Berkeley, agreed that the importance of preschool is “huge.”

“The most important thing for preschoolers is to find out that the world is much bigger than their family and that they are much bigger than their family sees,” Sheffield said. “What we see of the child is a social being.”

Preschool can also add structure for children and may provide insight into what a child struggles with, Sheffield said. For example, children have specific safety rules and boundaries, such as sitting at a table for lunch, that they may lack at home.

Sheffield said at her school, she or her staff members were often the first to notice if a child had hearing difficulties, problems communicating or a potential disability.

After learning these structures, Sheffield said children did better when they arrived at elementary school because they were not surprised about what the expectations were for their behavior.

According to Natanya Moore, owner and founding director of Little Elephant Montessori Too! in Berkeley, school can also provide a safe space for children, especially in light of the pandemic. Moore noted that children, despite sometimes having a limited understanding of global issues, are able to comprehend if the adults in their circle are stressed.

“When the world feels like it is falling apart around you, you can come there (to school),” Moore said.

Berkeley Rose Waldorf School director Jessica Prentice similarly agreed that early childhood education is immensely important, especially for success in childrens’ further schooling.

At Berkeley Rose, Prentice said, focus is applied to giving students skills that “bear fruits” later in their educational careers.

“A lot of the reason we don’t do academic work with small children is because it shuts down their creativity and imagination,” said Prentice. “We’re not focused on teaching children the special types of nitty-gritty skills that grown-ups need today because we don’t even know what those skills will be in 20 years. We’re focused on building the capacity in the child for freedom of thinking.”

Despite the importance of early childhood education, multiple sources said they worried people did not understand how accessible it could be to them.

Prentice said COVID-19 had impacted the accessibility of quality programs for children, while Moore said it was hard to publicize schools’ existence and financial aid programs or their acceptance of subsidies.

Both Sheffield and Hristova referenced programs in the East Bay that could help families find affordable programs, such as BANANAS in Oakland, First 5 Alameda County or CoCoKids.

Sheffield added some preschool programs in the area are also free for low-income families.

In light of this, Moore urged parents to do research and pick programs that feel right for them.

“Really put yourself out there, look for schools, talk to the schools and then find what’s the best fit for you and your family,” Moore said. “Take a chance.”

Contact Sebastian Cahill at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @SebastianCahil1.