The kids who attend the Little School of Hillsborough are encouraged to touch everything, and they do. Dirt, water, mud, plants, food, sticks, rocks, logs, tires, crates, paper, food, bugs ….. everything.
“They experience learning through touch,” said Jennifer Adams, who is the founding director of the school, which has been in Hillsborough for ten years. “They experience their feelings through touch. Their lives are touch.”
Since the end of March, though, nothing at the school’s five acres of classrooms, playgrounds and gardens is being touched. That’s when the door’s were closed and its 70 teachers and 280 students were sent home to help curb the spread of the coronavirus as part of the state’s shelter-in-place order.
“We stayed open a little longer than the public schools,” Adams said. “Once the stay-at-home order started coming, we felt like our place was to be part of that. To help slow the spread. There’s not much difference in our kinds of contact than with a nursing home. Or even a hospital. So, we wanted to not be part of the contact while everyone was figuring things out. We closed in March.”
Adams said the school felt it couldn’t ask parents for tuition in April, which meant it couldn’t make payroll. Staff was briefly furloughed while the school applied for a Paycheck Protection Program that was offered through the federal government.
“That was a huge process and harrowing,” Adams said of the PPP application. “But we were approved and received the funding. Our teachers are taken care of right now. We are adjusting our services. It’s kind of a really beautiful, challenging moment to see how deep our connections are with our families. Teachers are having Zoom meetings with a bunch of three-year-olds. You can imagine how those go. We’re also having lots of FaceTime on video with kids. We’ve made a YouTube Channel and teachers are uploading videos of themselves doing things, like reading e-books to the kids.”
The Little School in Hillsborough (there is a second location — the Little School at Duke — in Durham) closely follows a Reggio philosophy, which is a student-centered and constructivist self-guided curriculum that uses experiential learning in relationship-driven environments. It is dedicated to offering an inviting and stimulating environment and a developmentally appropriate program that values and encourages a child’s social, emotional and cognitive growth. Many of these experiences are had outdoors and in nature. Unlike typical preschools that limit outside time to around an hour per day, students at the Little School spend much of their day outdoors.
Another attraction of the school is its food.
“Our food is a really big deal here,” Adams said. “It’s really important to the children. It’s one of our big ideas here, nourishment of the children. What we had been doing before we closed was weekly meals to go. The families could pick up their child and take home a meal. Just this week, we started that back up. We’re able to do that. We’ve just started a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) for families. Our chef works very closely with farms. We figured that would be great. We have Maple View Milk for the children. We have eggs from local farms. We have lots of good relationships. It’s great to see because our children want to eat our food. It’s a comfort for them. That’s kind of a win-win right now. We bake our own bread and we’re putting that in with the meals. The kids are used to getting the bread because we would serve it every morning for snack.”
As is the case for nearly every small business being affected by COVID-19 and the measures taken to slow its spread, this is unchartered territory. Most businesses are adjusting and changing strategies to stay afloat until they are able to reopen. But that’s where many of the in-kind comparisons end. Because, while most small businesses are biding their time until they’re given the go ahead to reopen, Adams admits she has no idea how her school will handle opening its doors again.
“When we stayed open a little longer, while other places were closing down, the families that were really in need were appreciative,” she said. “When we got to the point of needing to close, they were largely understanding. I think everybody — all of our families — want to take care of our teachers. We’ve all been growing through this together. We’re all trying to figure this out. We thought we were going to be closed for two weeks at first, and everything would be fine. We’re continuing to talk and communicate with them so they understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. We definitely have families who want us to be open. We understand that, but right now, it’s the teachers, it’s the teachers, it’s the teachers. Being an essential element of everything, but not really being protected is really scary. We don’t have the protective equipment.”
Adams is frustrated by a lack of guidance; of being lumped in with other small businesses.
“We’re treated as small businesses — get your loans, get your money, try to stay open, maybe. We’re left to our own devices. I’m glad we closed because we weren’t wearing masks four weeks ago. We’re not sure what we’re going to do. Right now, we’re taking a breath. We’re watching the news and watching what happens.”
It’s a difficult situation, and one fraught with what Adams calls “unanswerable questions.”
“How you can have three-year-olds social distance?” she asked. “How do you have two-year-olds social distance? Teachers are going to be putting their own health at risk. We’re essential, but how can we be protected? We definitely want and need to be open. Our teachers are wanting to have babies in their arms. But how do you have babies in your arms? We’re trying to figure these things out. What is it going to look like when we reopen? It’s not going to be at full capacity. There’s no way to be full capacity with the restrictions. So, what does that look like? We are going from firm rock to firm rock. We’re feeling very, very grateful that we got the PPP funds. That has helped us greatly. But it’s really short term and this is a long term thing that we’re going to be dealing with.
“Right now, we’re sewing our own masks in anticipation. But you know, if we have 200 children and every time they blow their nose inside their mask, there’s a change. What does that look like? We need to be communicating expectations for our families. We’re looking at other countries. Looking at other systems and seeing how they’re doing it. Taking out of the room all the toys that can be shared. Taking the rugs out of the room. We’re reading a lot and trying to keep up. I feel, as a business owner, like I haven’t been forgotten. There’s been support for me. But, for the teachers, I feel like it’s a forgotten pocket. K-12 teachers are being taken care of. They’re maintaining employment. But these teachers — the preschool teachers. No one is answering because it’s unanswerable. So we’re going to be figuring out what to do next,” Adams said.
Whenever — and however — the school is able to reopen, it is likely to survive and grow, as essential workers will quickly seek childcare. Adams said her families seek out the Little School for its educational philosophy.
“We say that we protect childhood. We have a lot of families here that — I think — we help them remember their childhood. There’s lots of getting dirty, there are sprinklers. There are pigs out back to feed. There are gardens. I think there is that feeling of freedom, respect and a little bit of risk. A lot of dirt.”
That philosophy will also provide some comfort — albeit minor — that the children at the Little School may be less likely to become sick or pass illnesses to each other.
“We’re outside a lot. We’re in nature a lot. We follow what the children are interested in. We’re studying things they can touch: dirt, chairs, doors and insects. Those kinds of things. We treat them in a way that is respectful. We don’t see children as being there for us just to tell stuff to. We talk with them. They have rights. They’re a huge part of the planning that we do. We do a lot of documentation with them. We show them that we’re documenting. We show them that they’re learning all the time. We respect that what they’re doing is learning and discovering and it’s not just simple playing. For us, it’s great. One of the things we know when we open is that being outside a lot is one of the things that we’ll have to do. That’s great for us. We spend a lot of time in the woods and on walks, so that will be an easy transition. We go out in all different weather. Rain is great. Rain makes puddles. We get out in that all the time. Our classrooms are big and beautiful and have a lot of natural light. It feels beautiful and inspirational.”
Reggio schools began to rise in popularity in the U.S. during the 1990s. The educational philosophy is named for the town in Italy, which was badly damaged during World War ll. In the aftermath of the war, the people of Reggio determined who they were going to be, how they were going to change, raise and teach their children.
“It’s ironic that we’re kind of in the same place right now,” Adams said. “Literally trying to figure out who we are, what we’re going to be and what’s best for children. There’s a lot of opportunity for change.”
One area that could see change for the school is the use of technology by the students. The Little School, traditionally, has not included technology or ‘screen time’ in its daily routine.
“Children are only hands-on learning in a natural environment,” Adams said. “We are having a conversation among ourselves: Do we pivot? In Reggio, currently, they’re using more technology than we are. If we want to call ourselves a Reggio school, should we be embracing technology? They’re using cameras and they’re making movies. Because technology is in children’s lives, it cannot be ignored. But do we want to bring even more screen time to these children? It’s an interesting situation. The whole idea of how much are we going to continue embracing technology. Probably more than we were before. I would rather have a child with an iPad in their hands who knows how to make a movie or do some camera work rather than only know how to play games.”
Adams said she believes some of the children from her school understand what’s going on, but it’s completely understandable when a two-year-old doesn’t understand why he or she can’t touch everything or be in class. Generally, the children are happy to be home with their families. Some of the teachers have started delivering boxes of materials for the kids to interact with.
One thing is clear: they all miss each other. “The kids miss the teachers so much,” Adams said. “The teachers miss the children so much. It is amazing to see the connections they have with each other. They desperately want to be together. It’s painful not to have our children around us all the time.
“They want us open. Some of them want us to open. There are essential workers that we know we are not meeting their needs right now. We’re just not ready. If you’re going to regulate us opening, don’t leave it up to us to scrounge for disinfectant and to sew masks ourselves. If we’re gonna do this, we need to figure out answers to at least some of these unanswerable questions. And we’re going to continue to need support. When we open, it’s not going to be what it was and won’t be for a long time. It’s going to happen slowly,” she said.