Playful Learning Co-op Preschool survives pandemic through virtual preschool

A preschool student says “Hello” to her classmates via Zoom. (Photos courtesy of Angela Johnston)

Lynnwood’s Playful Learning Co-op Preschool (PLCP) survived the COVID-19 pandemic with a surprisingly successful solution: a virtual preschool.

Last year, the preschool was fully remote, but families had the option of coming to the facility to use their large outdoor space if they felt comfortable doing so. This year, the PLCP is the only co-op in Snohomish County that has continued offering online classes as well as in-person classes.

“There are some families that weren’t ready or weren’t able to [come back to in-person classes],” said PLCP’s Board Chair Angela Johnston. “And we decided that we want to still be able to meet those needs and to be a community for them as well.”

Started over 30 years ago, the PLCP is one of many co-op preschools in Snohomish County that is run almost exclusively by parents and volunteers. Johnston has been bringing her kids to the preschool for six years and said she loves the hands-on model the co-op delivers, even when classes became virtual to address health and safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, creating a completely remote preschool model seemingly overnight was not easy.

“[At the start] of this whole remote schooling thing, it was so new,” Johnston said. “At this point, it feels so familiar to so many. But at the time, it was so new, and we had to create these designs from scratch to figure out: What does remote preschool even look like? How can you teach these little kids and give them an experience that will actually help them develop and learn? We really were not sure how it would go.”

The PLCP shut down completely for a short period of time at the start of the pandemic to get its bearings and figure out if remote preschool would even be feasible. Because the preschool is a co-op, parents are required to work at least one day a week in the classroom. As a result, the preschool was able to adjust faster than other programs that were entirely staffed by regular employees.

“Because we are a parent-run cooperative, we had a lot of flexibility,” Johnston said. “We had a lot of people who could kind of pivot and figure out what our families needed.”

The day-to-day classes at the PLCP didn’t drastically change when they began teaching remotely, and according to Johnston, there were actually some benefits to virtual preschool. Students who normally would not speak much during circle times had the opportunity to share without interruption, thanks to Zoom’s mute button. The preschool created activity kits that parents could pick up and take home for their children. Parents were also given the opportunity to borrow books and toys to keep their kids engaged.

Johnston said remote learning would not have been possible without their incredible teacher, Pamela Frank.

“She was just fantastically engaging on the screen,” Johnston said. “[She] was really able to get the kids interacting.”

Teacher Pamela Frank keeps children engaged with puppets.

A downside to virtual learning, however, was the lack of socialization, according to Johnston. A big part of the co-op model with the PLCP is supporting the whole family. With parents in the classroom working as teacher’s assistants, bonds grow stronger between both parents and children.

“This was one of the things my family was personally drawn to at the beginning,” she said. “You create this network of friendships with other families who are in the same stage as you are. So having to go fully remote took away a lot of that daily interaction. Online, it’s felt a lot more individualized.”

Johnston said the most fascinating part about virtual preschool is realizing how quickly children can adapt to their changing surroundings.

“It’s been amazing to watch,” she said. “Kids develop and grow and they’re incredibly resilient. So they adjusted and it kind of became something that they just knew how to do. We saw them still learning and growing and doing everything you’d expect in a classroom in a lot of ways, just through a different medium.”

Johnston mentioned how grateful she is for the support the PLCP has received from its community of families.  She also voiced her gratitude for the help and support of Edmonds College, one of PLCP’s affiliates. 

“It’s just amazing to see how all of these different pieces can come together and support each other and somehow still create community when the virus was separating people,” she said.

A student and parent play with blocks in an in-person class.

Johnston said the PLCP will return to all in-person classes next year, but is glad she knows they can successfully manage virtual class if it is again needed in the future.

While enrollment dropped somewhat significantly during the pandemic, families are already enrolling their children for next year, and Johnston is hoping to see the PLCP’s numbers back to normal in the fall. 

“The last few years, we’ve been really open [with enrollment],” she said. “We want families to come when they’re able. We’ll [be accepting] new families from now until fall starts.”

Learn more about the PLCP and enrollment options on their website.

— by Lauren Reichenbach

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