Pacific's Early Learning Community Adapts Quickly to a Time of Physical Distancing

Otters Fairy Garden shotsIt’s almost as if the Early Learning Community at Pacific never skipped a beat converting from the physical world to a virtual world online.

The ELC online site is full of upbeat videos, from the opening welcome from Education Professor and Director of the Child Learning and Development Center Mark Bailey, to administrator Jessica Ackerman’s explanation of the way the music of Peter and the Wolf can tell a story without words. The site is full of links to birdsong, games, lesson plans and videos read by older children to preschoolers. It has photos of the kids and their classmates at home, doing activities with their parents, siblings and pets.

Of course, it wasn’t that easy to go from a rich, face-to-face learning experience to a robust online site where children and parents interact with the school’s educators. Bailey says he and his colleagues drew on a wealth of experience with online learning platforms and tools, as well as expertise on child learning, to build and enrich a site that now stands as a model for virtual learning for young children.

“I would say we’re getting good at this now,” said Bailey in a Zoom conversation. “As long as we can’t meet face to face, this is a great alternative platform.”

The Early Learning Community teaches about 75 children, a little more than half of them ages 3 and 4, along with 19 kindergarteners and 16 first- and second-graders, as well as a mixed group of after-schoolers. The classes are known by their aquatic animal tags — Dolphins, Sharks, Whales, Otters and Jellyfish. It is based in rooms and the outdoor Cedar Classroom on the southeastern edge of the Forest Grove Campus, near the intersection of Cedar Street and 21st Avenue.

When Oregon Gov. Kate Brown responded to the spread of the novel coronavirus by ordering schools closed in March, it was described as a 19-day restriction that, for many districts, bracketed spring break. Bailey said he knew the closure was likely to be longer. In fact, the order was extended through the end of the school year, with the only question about whether the fall academic year can take place at least partly in person.

The ELC is a high-touch school, where kids plunge their hands into the dirt, examine plants and insects, and run and climb. Bailey said he and his colleagues worked to retain the engaging qualities that set the school apart from traditional classrooms, while involving parents, who can sometimes be seen hovering in the background during Zoom meetings of classmates.

It gives students a way to stay in touch with their teachers, whose video messages often say something like “I’m so glad you’re here!” They ask students to join in guessing about classmates, playing games, and attempting simple experiments. The teachers have clearly poured their hearts into their work, creating extensive guides and resources for parents to draw upon.

During the week of April 27, the Otters and Whales took a break from the routine with a “Pause Week.” It was a slow-down week, a week to acknowledge the unfamiliarity of current conditions, and to relax and reflect, while enjoying the company of their families.

“We are living through an extraordinary time in history,” reads the letter to parents from their children’s instructors. “When you are needing to complete adult responsibilities during this week, we hope you’ll grant your children the gift of free time. Time to be bored. Time to think of a new, creative idea. Time to daydream, to doodle, to imagine.”

In some ways, the pandemic has allowed the ELC to throw its virtual doors open to the broader community. Education Dean Leif Gustavson wrote a letter in April to the Pacific community highlighting the work of Bailey and his team, and inviting parents to take advantage of the resources offered by ELC Online.

The ELC has openings for new students this fall at all three learning levels, Bailey said. Tuition is $7,250 for the 2020-21 year, but is offered on a sliding scale according to family income. With the physical school closed, current families are paying tuition on an voluntary basis, though the school welcomes donations to help support its continuing work.

Bailey said the school has no plans to take the ELC Online site offline. It’s a good site during a time of physical distancing, he agreed, but “it’s quite a second best to being face to face.”

Thursday, May 7, 2020