COVID-19 and Early Childhood Programs: Lessons All Schools Can Learn from Preschools.

Early childhood programs constitute the single largest sector of Episcopal schools. While all schools have had to adapt to operating in a COVID-19 world, the challenges the virus has presented to preschools and childcare programs have been unique. Episcopal school early childhood leaders have been meeting weekly on Zoom since March. Here are the major takeaways from those conversations.

Preschools provide a lifeline for families.

Although many parents have decided to keep their preschool children at home, a greater number are relying on their early childhood programs to remain open. They may be frontline workers or parents with jobs that cannot be performed at home. Those with or without older school age children find having their toddler or preschooler at home simply unworkable for home/work life. Others value the social interaction of being part of a school community and/or want to sustain a sense of normalcy for their young child. Episcopal early childhood programs whose families fall into these categories have found a strong demand to remain open, with tremendous appreciation on the part of families for doing so.

Preschools can open and operate safely.

Skepticism about the ability of early childhood programs to operate during COVID emerged early in the pandemic. Even as health departments and licensing agencies mandated stringent routines for distancing and cleaning. Young children wearing masks seemed impractical. How could classrooms and equipment be appropriately cleaned? How could teachers possibly keep children distanced?

But early childhood programs are running smoothly and safely, primarily due to extraordinary planning and unprecedented commitment on the part of directors and teachers. Teachers and school leaders tapped into the creativity and can-do spirit that permeate early childhood programs to develop child-centered ways to keep young children both safe and engaged. Through songs and practice, young children took quickly to handwashing and masks. Screening and exposure questionnaires were incorporated into drop-off. Only students and staff are permitted on campus—so schools found new ways to introduce parents and students to teachers. Playgrounds have been reorganized into sectors and students organized into pods. Cleaning and sanitizing routines are in place, such as the “yuck bucket” into which children put toys they have just used. And much of learning, including children’s chapel, moved outdoors, with individual lap desks and hula hoops used for physical distancing.

The result? Preschool directors have commented universally on the joy of the staff and children in being together and the remarkable ways that both adults and students adapted to a ‘new normal.’

Schools and parishes need to work together.

The symbiotic nature of the church-school relationship came to the fore during COVID, particularly for early childhood programs. Two major issues immediately emerged. First, can or should the preschool open if the church is closed? And, secondly, what will be the financial impact on both school and church given that enrollment will be significantly lower due to regulations for distancing and/or lowered demand?

Early on, directors and rectors understood that they had to work together. A number of Episcopal preschools and parishes created a church-school COVID Task Force that navigated everything from PPP loans, how and whether to open, and financial challenges and how those would be met. In some cases, these conversations led to a prudent and shared decision for the preschool to suspend operations until January 2021 or September 2021, or even close indefinitely.

For many programs, collaborative discussions and planning allowed the preschool to open safely even while the parish continued to have remote services. Space use and traffic patterns were re-worked so that the school could be fully self-contained and cross-exposure mitigated, if not eliminated. Parish and school were transparent about finances. Thoughtful financial planning meant that the preschool was able to balance its budget, the preschool’s reserves were called into play, or the vestry and school board agreed on a deficit that could be managed until enrollment reset to normal.

The shared work of school and church leaders during COVID is a powerful reminder of the need for communication and collaboration between parishes and preschools, even when not facing a crisis.

Budgets need to adapt to a new reality.

In every case, early childhood programs simply have not been able to sustain full enrollment during the pandemic. Required physical distancing and space limitations have resulted in enrollment downturns typically from thirty to sixty percent. Because online learning for young children is not ideal, early childhood programs quickly faced questions of adjusted fees and tuition when they were forced to close during spring 2020, a reality that likely will recur at some point during the 2020-2021 academic year. Finally, schools had to determine whether it could retain and continue to pay its faculty and staff, downsize staff, or re-assign staff.

Preschool boards, often working with their parish leaders, developed budget scenarios. Tuition policies were updated to include school closure, with or without distance learning, such as a stepped tuition reduction based on the number of weeks closed. Some preschools were forced to lay off staff or had early retirements. Others re-assigned staff to new duties such as cleaning and or online teaching of “specials” such as music or yoga.

With the exception of localities experiencing an influx of families (often suburbs of major metropolitan areas such as New York City), similar scenarios will need to be developed for 2021-2022. Preschools and their parishes will need to work together to anticipate deficit or break-even budgets, and determine how to handle any carry-over or anticipated deficits.

The school may need to close for a period of time—have a plan.

The unplanned closures in the spring of 2020 were extraordinarily difficult for early childhood programs. Anticipating that the same may occur at some point in 2020-2021, directors have worked with teachers to plan ahead. Preschools have prepared take-home curricular packets or online learning plans that can be distributed immediately should the school close and revert to remote learning. Schools added force majeure language to their staff handbooks or letters of agreement, noting that teachers may be reassigned or asked to teach remotely in the event of a closure, as well as adjustments to compensation.

Be prepared for individual exposure or community spread of the virus.

Organizing teachers and students into pods or learning cohorts quickly became standard practice. In this way, only an affected pod must quarantine should an individual in the pod have a primary exposure or a positive diagnosis. Working with local health departments as well as licensing agencies and state/local guidelines, preschools developed protocols early on for primary or secondary exposure on the part of a student, student’s family member, or staff member.

To date, a positive case of COVID among enrolled students has been exceedingly rare. Multiple Directors have reported a sibling, staff member, or staff member’s family member having primary exposure or testing positive, with resulting quarantine protocols. And, with rates of community spread increasing in a number of localities, preschools are currently determining whether and when they would close, even without a positive case within the school community. Each program is making its decision based on their local health department recommendations, guidelines in their state that may require a closure, or the lead of their local public schools.

Joy persists!

Amidst all of the hard work, demands, and difficult decision-making facing Episcopal early childhood leaders, all have commented on the joy that persists among their students and in their school community. Unaware that this is a “different” time, children call masks “costumes,” play creatively with whatever materials they have, enjoy one another’s company and that of their teachers, laugh in the rain, throw the fall leaves, and make amazing art. They remind all of us that life goes on, even in changed ways, and that joy and love remain. The life force that is particularly powerful in young children remains as strong as ever, and our Episcopal preschools continue to set that force free—although not in the ways we predicted.

The adults who lead our Episcopal preschools—directors and division heads, school board members, teachers, parish leaders—are accomplishing the seemingly impossible. If there is an early childhood program in your school or church, if you hear the laughter of children outside your school or church doors, and the ringing of young voices on a playground—please extend your thanks to these devoted professionals.

And if you are a church and school that made the difficult decision not to open or to suspend operations—consider how and whether the care and education of young children may yet again be in your future.

For Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

Mark 10:14

Early Childhood leaders of NAES member schools continue to meet each Tuesday from 2:00 – 3:00 pm EST on Zoom. Directors, rectors, and school board leaders are all welcome to attend. Register here.