Balancing act for Delaware child-care centers’ schooling needs

On Monday, students in the Appoquinimink School District are heading back to school. Learning Tree Academy, an early childhood education facility in Middletown, is preparing for what it will look like having students in school and at the center during a year shaded by coronavirus.

“It’s a little bit nerve-wracking for us on that part but we hope that everything goes smoothly with that part of things,” said Megan Coats, director of the center.

When schools reopened in September, many did so remotely, leaving parents and families in need of options. Centers felt that pressure. In August, Ms. Coats said the center was already full — especially with a state-mandated lower ratio to encourage distancing — when more parents called about openings.

In August, the Delaware Department of Education facilitated small groups of district and charter leadership working with child care providers to determine the needs and abilities of each. DOE tapped 26 child care providers to participate.

Since then, education has been far from stagnant. Before school started, the state extended the mask-wearing mandate to kindergärtners and older, which had an impact on the centers that previously hadn’t needed to enforce that. And, slowly, a number of students have been gearing up to head back to school under a hybrid model.

“When they’re coming off the afternoon buses [for after-school care], we’ll be taking their temperatures again, just because we make sure that we’re staying on top of things on our end and that there’s not that spread that would potentially happen,” Ms. Coats said.

There have been 22 students and 19 staff members at child care centers statewide who have reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 since Sept. 1. The state releases the numbers, as well as those for private and public K-12 schools, on a weekly, cumulative basis. This week’s data shows an increase of 15 cases between staff and students from last week.

Mostly, the child care centers have adjusted to navigating the role of mediating children’s education.

“The first couple weeks, we were just trying to get settled in and figure out all the kids’ different schedules and when their Zoom meetings were and all that fun stuff,” she said. “There were obviously some little headaches with that. But once we got into things — I’d say by the third week — it was in a groove.”

At The Breakfast Club in Milford, which is juggling several districts, the staff has been adapting.

“It’s almost like an autopilot. Because once they get on, they’re with their teacher so we’re just assisting them with anything,” said director Melody Hines. “Then on days that they’re doing work by themselves, we’re helping with any assignments that they have and any questions.”

As the child care centers prepared for reopening, scheduling proved to be the most difficult part. It’s gotten more complicated with hybrid learning.

In the Milford School District, only some of the students have been phased in to school so far.

“We’ve just had a lot of moving parts,” Ms. Hines said.

Interest has increased for enrolling school-aged children even still, she added.

“Some parents, I guess, if they have that schedule for where they’re actually home in time for their kid to get off the bus, now, they don’t have that opportunity because they’re only going to be in school two days a week,” she said.

Some centers, however, like Shell’s Child Care and Recreation Center, are only open to exclusively virtual learners.

“I chose just to do the virtual learning for the students, because once I get into sending the children to school, if there’s something going on at the school, then it may affect my center as well,” said Lichell Isaac, director of the center.

Several families have had to disenroll due to that policy, she said.

She has also built in time for additional cleaning and sanitizing, which has modified the center’s hours.

“We’re really focusing on cleaning and sanitizing and disinfecting, because this is when the children and the staff do get sick, between November and January,” she said. “It gets scary.”

With her centers in several different areas — Milton, Frederica, Harrington and Dover — the staff has a balancing act with the different districts and parents,.

“It’s just been weird,” she said. “Every school district requires something different. But trying to get the children to stay focused and working at the computer — that’s been a very big challenge, especially with the younger children.”

Aside from keeping children tuned in for their online courses, making sure she has enough staff is important.

“The biggest challenge, I think for me and my organization, is just managing the fear, managing the fear of the unknown, ensuring that we have enough staff at the center for the ‘just in case,’” she said.

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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