The organized chaos begins promptly at 8:45 a.m.

One by one, faces start to fill the tiny black Zoom boxes.

Grins with gaping holes left behind by newly lost teeth light up the screen. Parents and siblings move in and out of webcam frames.

“Good morning, Mr. P,” Gabriel says from his makeshift home classroom.

A chorus of good mornings follows, as 22 5-year-olds chime in from bedroom desks, kitchen tables, a daycare classroom, even sprawled on a bed.

“I am glad to see you dudes this morning,” Joe Parrett responds, greeting each of his kindergarten students by name as they enter the Zoom session.

Spend a few hours in the virtual classroom of Mr. P, and you will see the messiness, hilarity, and creativity that consumes virtual learning.

This is the only school these 5-year-olds know – Mr. P, via a laptop screen.

They have never met him or their classmates in person. They don’t know how tall their teacher is or what his classroom looks like. They are missing all the pieces of a traditional kindergarten experience, every child’s typical introduction to school.

But they also aren’t missing a thing.

Unlike older students, they don’t know what they’ve lost.

But the teachers do.

And this year, teachers like Parrett spend hours outside the classroom preparing for these 22 little boxes, managing a classroom that at any given moment could include one kid rolling around on the couch, while another is having a fit, while another is paying close attention, while another is off screen wandering around their house.

“It’s every little bit of kindergarten all at once and in your face,” Parrett said. “The good, the bad, the ugly, it’s all of it. It’s essentially childhood on display.”

Wilbur Elementary School kindergarten teacher Joe Parrett uses his puppet "Sam" to teach his class Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. Parrett has developed many techniques and tricks to help keep young students engaged while learning virtually.

The state has spent the year pushing schools to offer some form of in-person learning.

Students learn better in the classroom, Gov. John Carney has said repeatedly, especially Delaware’s youngest learners.

But some of those youngest learners have already opted to study from home for the rest of the school year. At Parrett’s own school, Wilbur Elementary in Bear, only 41% of families chose to return for in-person learning.

Parrett and other teachers are left trying to solve a challenge that would have been unheard of a year ago – how do you teach 5-year-olds to read and count through a screen?

The answer includes plenty of dance breaks, silly names and voices, perfectly planned slideshows, and lots and lots of puppets.

With a graying beard and glasses, 50-year-old Parrett is the only man on a team of mostly 30-something-year-old women teaching kindergarten. When he’s in the classroom, he towers over the kids at 6-foot-2.

He calls all of his students “dude” and “bud.” When they offer a correct answer, he responds with virtual fist bumps.

On a Thursday morning in January, he chats with his students as they trickle into the Zoom classroom.

“Mr. P, my two big tooths are coming in,” Destiny says, leaning mouth-first into the camera to show off her missing teeth.

“My tooth is wiggling,” Isabella replies.

Soon, the screen fills with mouths as everyone starts showing off their lost teeth.

The chorus of “Mr. Ps” starts all over again.

Without letting the group get out of control, Parrett shifts to the question of the day: Would you rather never hear music again, or never play another video game?

As if they were in the classroom, hands shoot up as the students wait their turn. Others are already getting sidetracked by a half-eaten breakfast, or nearby stuffed animals.

Kindergarteners have short attention spans, whether they’re learning in the classroom or through a screen.

Five-year-olds lack “Zoom endurance,” Parrett said, making virtual learning even tougher.

To hold their attention, he started the year practically running a makeshift children’s TV show from his basement.

Parrett would teach a five-minute lesson on sounding out letters. Eventually, he’d notice slumping shoulders or wandering eyes.

Then he’d bring out the puppets – a felted and fuzzy cast of characters Parrett uses to help recapture the students’ attention.

Wilbur Elementary School kindergarten teacher Joe Parrett speaks to his class Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. Parrett has developed many techniques and tricks to help keep young students engaged while learning virtually.

There’s gray-haired Nona Nucci, an old woman who reads books and introduces the kids to new words.

Sum, a horned yellow monster who reviews his favorite numbers and adding and subtracting.

And Wordy the Werewolf, who spells out sight words like “that” and “for.”

The puppets are entirely handmade. Parrett sketches his ideas, and his wife stitches them to life.