When the COVID-19 pandemic closed childcare and schools back in March, we could not have understood the scope of what the following months would bring. The decision to reopen the economy, thrust RECE’s and childcare staff onto the frontlines, and childcare centers needed to make hard decisions about reopening their programs. Childcare professionals needed to return to work safely, and still provide nurturing, joyful, healthy and high quality environments to welcome children during a time that was confusing and wrought with fear and uncertainty. Annavale Headstart was no exception, and the reopening process was undertaken with caution, care and teamwork. One thing was certain, the team approached the decision to reopen with pride, determination and with a solution focused mindset, so that our families and children would be supported.
Since July, when we returned to the in-person program at Annavale, the team had decided that despite the pandemic, children needed to be children, and were to be given the same care they were given before the pandemic. For us that meant our children needed to have hugs, hold hands, be carried, and snuggled. This meant, they needed to be able to play with each other, and discover and explore together and with their teachers. Teachers would pull down their masks (from a six-foot distance) so the children could see the teachers smiling at them. Teachers cuddled children at naptime, and held children who were crying for their parents. Before we knew it, the children seemed to get used to the idea of us wearing masks, and shields.
In keeping with COVID regulations, we spent the majority of our time outdoors with the children. The program developed the routine of going for a morning walk in the neighborhood, before playing in the playground. This daily walk not only helped to connect the children to their community, but it also nurtured so many different developing skills. They saw painted rocks, and decided to paint their own rocks and place along the sidewalks during their walks for the children in the opposite cohort to find. An arborist company was working all summer in the neighborhood, trimming city trees. Each day the children discovered them on a different street, and the workers would smile and wave at the children. They made maps of the neighborhood, noting landmarks they saw, which they would discuss as places to go visit for the next walk. Into the fall, they saw Halloween decorations go up, and they were able to have a visual Halloween scavenger hunt. Memory, planning, socio-emotional, gross motor, creativity, and language are just a few of the skill areas that were being engaged.
It would be so easy to decide that working during a pandemic is too challenging and not worth the risk to everyone’s health. However, there were so many positive things that came out of the return to our in person program. We started with lower ratios, which allowed the team the opportunity to focus on building strong positive connections and work on forming attachments with the children. As new children came to our program, the team was able to take time getting to know the children, and helping them adjust to the new routine. Changing our routines to ensure we were spending as much time as possible outdoors allowed the program to try new outdoor activities and re-discover the neighborhood in which we are located. Now the Annavale Children have become a daily presence who happily say “hello” to the many residents in the community who were still isolating in their homes.
Things did not just fall into place, it took some figuring out, and a dedicated team that worked together to ensure the program was running as best as it could. The team found ways to instill a sense of normalcy to the program for the children. They developed daily book bins, which would rotate into the program, and then be stored until the following week. This meant, the children could continue to read books.
They made playdough, double batches, which was enough so that each child could play with their own playdough, and then take home at the end of the day.
Paint was put in individual trays, for children to explore fingerpaint. Sensory tables were closed, but the team found ways to offer sensory experiences that were safe, fun and age appropriate. Circle time continued, however, songs were changed to reflect the “no singing” directive to spoken word or chants.
PPE was tried out to figure out what worked best for each person. Face shields, goggles and masks with attached face shields were purchased, so staff could try different combinations, to ensure everyone was able to wear PPE that was “comfortable enough” to wear for long hours at a time.
IKEA aprons were purchased to have on hand so that children could still be held if they were crying, and the teacher’s clothing was protected. Indoor toys were kept ready for use, but stored out of reach, to help with the amount of toy disinfecting that needed to be done each day.
The Annavale Headstart team was committed to having the return to in person childcare, be successful, safe and yet still be a place filled with laughter and fun. The pandemic made the lives of our very vulnerable families and children, even more precarious, and we all understood the need to help our families find some sense of routine, support and a sense of connection to Annavale once again. This belief provides our team with the guidance needed in our effort to offer a program rich in experiences, where children and staff feel joyful, and there is warmth and support for their families.
Colette Francis, B.A., R.E.C.E.
Coordinator of Early Years Programs & Annavale Headstart Nursery School