Baker Ripley volunteers sort through personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies at a Workforce Solutions Child Care Services COVID-19 Safety Supplies Distribution Event. Photos courtesy of Workforce Solutions Rural Capital Area
What schools can learn from daycares reopening safely
While K-12 schools were able to break for the summer, daycare and early learning centers have continued to adapt to COVID-19 as an essential service for essential workers.
With the beginning of the 2020 school year just weeks away, the Texas Education Agency released new guidelines last week, allowing schools to limit access to on-campus instruction for the first four weeks of school. Students who do not have access to internet or reliable technology at home will however be entitled to on-campus instruction, with precautions in place.
In the meantime, school administrators have been scrambling to answer the question of how to continue to educate students without creating greater health risks or fear.
Daycare centers and preschools in Hays County did not have the same hiatus, to meditate on exactly how to do this, except for a short period when a local ordinance shut them down. Early childhood education organizations had no choice but to move swiftly to learn how to care for their students in person in a way that was not just safe, but comfortable for staff, students and parents.
The Kid Ranch, an early learning and preschool program in San Marcos, had to shut down temporarily only to reopen once it was deemed an essential service with personal protective equipment and temperature checks. Preschools were already used to sanitizing their spaces frequently and teaching handwashing to their students.
“COVID-19 affected us in a major way,” Director Gwen Garcia said. “We provide care for lots of families in the area, as well as families in the medical field. Our staff was afraid to lose our jobs when we shut down initially. We were not sure if we were going to survive it.”
The major operational adjustment for parents and teachers was that parents cannot enter the building when dropping off their children, and there can only be one teacher assigned to a small group of students, which has affected hours of operation.
“We can't allow teachers to cover different classrooms,” Garcia said. “We used to have a new teacher come in at noon and cover and give them a lunch break. That’s been hard, keeping teachers in their own classroom and not going over the amount of hours they should be working each day. That's the reason we had to adjust hours.”
Attendance reflected both parents’ comfort levels and a privilege to choose. The Kid Ranch voided their normal 30 day notice policy if parents wanted to pull their kids out when they didn't feel comfortable. Others did not have that luxury.
“We had a mixture of families who were just terrified to bring their children back. But there has been a good balance,” Garcia said. “We work with workforce solutions to provide front line childcare. As people were leaving we had new families needing to enroll. Some parents were enrolling because they have to work and they don’t have another choice. Others don’t have to work or are able to work from home and choose to keep their kids home.”
Despite the new enrollment from essential workers balancing cancellations from parents who chose to keep their kids in the safety of their own homes, facilities still had to make tough administrative choices to keep to proper social distancing guidelines and balance the books.
“We wanted to limit our exposure but teachers were all saying the same thing: ‘we are here to serve our community,’” Garcia said. “It's a risk as teachers and staff we were willing to take. It was definitely tough.”
Some staff members volunteered to take a leave of absence when initially there weren’t enough students enrolled and still are because there are only a certain number of bodies allowed in one classroom, and only one teacher per classroom.
As a result, staying open did not necessarily translate to flourishing revenue streams. “We had to limit the number of students that were allowed to attend. It got so tight that I had to step down so we could afford to pay teachers that were here. It was really rough,” said Garcia.
Thankfully many childcare facilities qualified for the CARES Act SBA loans, and the Kid Ranch was able to hang on until that funding came through.
The kids, however, have adapted quicker than anyone, as kids often do, but it wasn’t without careful planning from administrators. “The kids have been great. We were offered training on how to make it less scary for the kids, how to teach them safety without scaring them. It went off without a hitch. I thought it was going to be harder without parents being able to sit their kids down at the table but it was a really smooth transition,” said Garcia.
Community Action Incorporated of Central Texas on the other hand has resorted to finding creative ways to do their work remotely. For many families who can watch their kids at home, Community Action has learned how to offer engaging zoom sessions and support parents in similar ways that schools did before summer.
Community Action runs the Head Start schools, including the Henry Bush Childhood Development Center in San Marcos.
Dr. Imelda Madrano, Early Childhood Education Program director at Community Action hoped they would be able to open their doors to families in August but says they way state-wide case counts are looking right now in addition to having seven cases in their fully staffed offices, it seems way too dangerous.
Community Action schools decided the first nine weeks of the school year will be 100% virtual.
Since they closed their doors after spring break they have continued to provide services to families, emailing and mailing packets of instructional activities and providing food boxes to families weekly, including baby formula and diapers. However, some parents worry their child is not getting the instruction they need at a critical age for development.
Without in person drop off and pickup, Community Action receives much less feedback, Madrano said. “They have expressed the desire for their children to come back, but also expressed fear of their family getting sick. We hear doing activities we are sending home to them doesn't feel anywhere near as effective as if they were getting in person instruction. Some like the activities because they like spending more time with their child, at the same time, some feel ill equipped that their child is getting the instruction that they need to continue to grow.”
Madrano says those parents who have to work and need childcare are counting on extended family members. “I think that many of them are not working right now because they are taking care of their children. We were considering giving people a choice and having some students come back physically and give them the choice to be served virtually. We had a lot of people say they would bring their child back because they needed to get back to work,” said Madrano.
Luckily, Community Action schools and daycares are funded by the Head Start office in Washington D.C. and have been able to keep their teachers on payroll. They will keep them on as long as possible because they know if they were to let their staff go, they very well may not be able to rehire the same quality talent fast enough to reopen.
“We are very eager to be able to hold the babies in our arms again and to make them smile. We miss them,” Madrano said. “We worry about their safety and our safety. We really want to get back to doing what we love, bring a bright light in their little lives, and help them grow.”
Workforce Solutions Rural Capital Area has 22 open childcare and early childhood education programs in Hays County and seven in San Marcos. They have reduced ratios of instructors to children, ensured only essential personnel enter facilities and maintain rigorous health and safety cleanings.
They have been providing financial support for providers that are open and caring for children, paying them for children that have scholarships with the Rural Capital Program and an additional 25% increase to help defray some of the increased costs of having reduced student to instructor ratios. They have also been providing disinfectant and PPE to all their facilities.
On the flip side of increased costs, children are now receiving more one on one attention, which is a positive according to Sandy Anderson, Area Director of Childcare Services for Workforce Solutions. “It's been an adjustment but given the situation, people are trying to find the positive. The parents have to work and so we must provide a healthy, safe, nurturing , caring quality program during this time. It is critical that we provide this essential service,” she said.
They have come up with creative ways to include parents virtually like virtual storytime to help the youngest children stay connected and feel safe.
Anderson said the number of students in attendance has actually increased, which reflects the fact that many parents of rural Texas communities are working essential jobs. She said, “We have been blessed to see that our providers are able to serve children of essential workers, and that we have received funding to continue to do so. Childcare centers need to be open to provide care to the children of essential workers.”
Anderson says childcare centers staying open in rural areas like Hays County was critical for the economy to stay afloat. “Businesses were shut down, and many employees that were not with essential businesses took their children home, leaving room for childcare centers to answer the call and care for the children of essential workers. (the community) would not have survived without those providers.”