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How to Run A Preschool During a Pandemic

Jul 14, 2020, 15:10 PM by Jessica Scott

Being a director of a large preschool/childcare center is rewarding and dynamic. There’s never a dull moment when you’re helping provide care for the littlest and cutest members of society.

These children come to our centers to learn, play and grow. What do preschool and early preschool children learn at a place like YMCA Inspire Preschool? So many things! Have you ever had a conversation with a 3-year-old?

Do it! It’ll give you a smile.

Some of these children are getting ready for kindergarten and are learning school readiness — but all of them are learning how to be members of a community. They’re making friends, they’re learning how to use their words and they’re learning to be kind. And they’re being taught by incredible early childhood teachers, assistant teachers and teachers’ aides. These educators are here to provide a safe, caring, nurturing environment to help lay the foundations for learning.

It’s such an important job. And during a pandemic, well, they are not just teachers, they are heroes. And preschool is not just a place where kids learn and grow, it's a necessary service that ensures that all other functions in our society can continue to keep our communities safe, healthy, fed and supplied. 

teacher with masks sits with preschoolers

As you know, in March of this year, things took a drastic turn when COVID-19 began spreading through communities.

Suddenly, childcare centers and preschools took on a different role — providing emergency care for children of essential workers. The early childhood teachers who were once implementing curriculum and gearing up for assessments were now tasked with providing a safe and consistent environment for children of families whose parents absolutely had to go to work. These were workers in the medical profession, grocery store workers, mental health workers and more.

It became very clear that childcare professionals for kids of every age are (and always have been) essential. 

I have read a lot of articles online in which people describe emergency childcare, and they don’t always paint an accurate picture. So what’s so different about running childcare during a pandemic?

Well, almost everything is different.

Many childcare centers and preschools made the difficult decision to close their doors, effectively laying off or furloughing all of their employees. The centers that were able to stay open to provide emergency care lost a great deal of their regular enrollment and also went through layoffs and furloughs. So at most centers, there have been fewer staff members and fewer children.

There were also times when children would enroll temporarily in programs as part of the Emergency Childcare Collaborative. Some of these families moved from out of the area to help in local hospitals and clinics. 

Additionally, the whole routine of the day has changed. Teachers all wear masks or face coverings for their whole shift. Hand-washing has increased, but to be fair, early childhood teachers are rockstars at hand-washing. There are plenty of fun songs about it too! Classrooms and items in classrooms are disinfected daily as well as throughout the day. 

When a parent comes to the center, their regular access is restricted to allow for social distancing and to minimize the number of people in the building. Parents have to wear masks when they come into the building, and there are hand-sanitizing stations everywhere. Parents are not permitted to take their child into their classroom and do their normal (and vital) drop-off routine, which often includes lots of hugs, seeing the super cool toys they’re going to play with that day and sometimes reading a story.

Instead, a teacher or director will check the child’s temperature and ask several questions about any recent symptoms, exposure to the virus and how other members of the household are doing. Then the parent drops off the child in the hallway, and that teacher or director escorts them to their classroom. 

A sunny preschool classroom with children sitting at a table eating snack and a teacher with a mask stands nearby

Outside of the classroom, administrators worry about making sure they are following the lengthy requirements and protocols from the health department. They frantically work to make sure there will be enough personal protective equipment (gloves, masks, safety goggles) and disinfectant to make sure rooms and spaces are clean for the children in their care. They worry about “stable groups” and how to shop for supplies. They worry about how to keep morale up for their staff. They worry about how to keep the program running — during a time when families need childcare more than ever. They worry about how to enroll more children when they can’t offer in-person tours of their center.

Teachers worry that they’re not doing enough. They worry about visiting their own family members because they’re actively working with children. They worry about their own health as well as the health of the children in their care. They worry about the experiences children are missing — when they can’t explore sensory tables or play with playdough. They worry about the bonds and social-emotional experiences that children may be missing as they discourage hugging and holding hands. They’re hyper-aware of when children are acting like they aren’t feeling well and worry if they’re being too alarmist.

Did I mention that we worry?

Inside the classroom, though, is a different scene. Teachers are teaching. Children are learning. They’re playing. They’re singing songs and making new friends. They’re practicing writing their name. They are hearing stories read to them virtually by an early childhood mental health consultant. The topics of these stories range from the coronavirus itself to helping support social-emotional growth.

Kids get stressed out too! And that’s appropriate and expected.

But most of their day, they’re doing something that feels normal to them. They have a routine that is consistent and predictable. Their teachers are supporting them as they learn new things, knowing that so much of a child’s brain development happens before a child turns 5 years old. And these teachers are doing it with a smile, even if you can’t see it under the mask.

Children are being cared for and loved.

young girls smiles in preschool

Remember how I said “almost everything” was different about running a childcare program during a pandemic? There is definitely one thing that has stayed the same: the dedication of the staff who care for these children every day.

They come to work, they wash their hands (over and over and over) and they mask up, ready to handle whatever the day might throw at them. While we can’t shield children from all the scary things in the world, we can provide them with a safe environment to feel their feelings and be a kid.

We can also help their parents get back to some normalcy by having a clean, safe, supportive place to bring their children. This is childcare. 

Jessica Scott is the senior program director at YMCA Inspire Preschool in Longmont. If you are interested in learning more about our preschool and early childhood education programs, visit our webpage

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