As the world shut down in March 2020 to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, child care center owners and early childhood educators had a unique perspective on the challenges and trade-offs that this unprecedented effort to stop contagion imposed on families and children.
Daycares, family home providers and preschools play an essential role in the crucial brain development that happens from birth to age 5—development that doesn’t stop during a pandemic.
In addition to providing important care to allow parents to work, quality child-care providers are essential to fostering kindergarten readiness among Virginia’s youth.
But good child care cannot be delivered virtually, and social distancing takes on new meaning in a classroom where learning is accomplished through playing on the floor, handling objects and interacting with teachers.
Virginia Quality, a free program that provides resources to help child-care and early-learning programs improve, is proud of the innovation and dedication that the Fredericksburg area’s child-care centers, preschools and home-based care providers showed throughout the various stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“From figuring out how to socially distance toddlers to building virtual learning labs from scratch in the fall, these dedicated providers were there every step of the way for their families and children,” said Jenna Martin, Virginia Quality Regional Coordinator at Smart Beginnings Rappahannock Area. “We hope their work shines a light on just how essential quality early childhood care providers are to our society.”
As public and private K-12 schools across the state closed, many early childhood educators never stopped coming to work to deliver essential care to children from birth to age 5, as well as full-time care for school-aged children who were no longer in school.
Leah Spruill, owner of Always Sonshine Learn & Play in Spotsylvania County, remembers how hard it was to keep operating in the weeks of mid-March, after schools closed and much of the country retreated to home. As she managed the emotions of her families, she also watched her operating expenses increase tremendously, as the need to purchase personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and hire an outside service to clean the center regularly squeezed the center’s budget.
Keeping teachers in the classroom was also a challenge. When Gov. Ralph Northam ordered all public and private schools in Virginia closed for the remainder of the school year, Spruill said some of her teachers questioned the safety of coming to work at the center.
“These wonderful teachers who are the heart of my team were understandably worried,” she said. “I reminded them that we are essential. Everybody stuck together, and we pulled through.”
When it became evident that schools were not going to re-open for in-person learning in the fall of 2020, Always Sonshine made another investment—adding an additional router and upgrading its WiFi service to accommodate virtual learning.
As the center’s staff continues to work through the trial and error of this new reality, Spruill takes pride in the strength of her team and the close connection she has with all of her families. She’s also been thankful for support from Smart Beginnings Rappahannock Area, which has provided care packages, outdoor toys, individual materials so children don’t have to share and other resources. Smart Beginnings and Virginia Quality have also provided virtual training, shared provider listings and facilitated other networking to support providers during this time.
“We wanted to make sure these providers felt supported, because this year has been extremely challenging,” said Courtney Harris, Virginia Quality Expansion Coordinator at Smart Beginnings Rappahannock Area. “It is important for us to recognize that while many people were able to isolate at home during the pandemic, these providers in many ways carried on with providing the level of quality care they have been trained and educated to deliver.”
That is certainly the case for Bridget Johnson, owner of Tiny Tot’s Town Learning Center, a family day home provider in southern Stafford County. She saw many of the families of the 12 children in her care keep their kids home during the early weeks of the pandemic, and she worked closely with families over the weeks and months, allowing them to use vacation and sick credits and arranging payment plans to let them hold their spaces during challenging times for household budgets.
For families staying home, she created curriculum packets and drove to deliver them on a weekly and then monthly basis.
“It was a way of having the children continue to learn, but also have something to do, and it gave the parents something to do to connect with their kids.”
While the pandemic brought new challenges, new safety protocols and new ways of conducting pickup, drop-off and other interactions, Johnson said in many ways this time period highlighted for her just how important the role she plays in her families’ lives is.
“I think it just enhanced what I already knew about how essential I am and how important this is and how we have to be there for each other,” she said.
Learn more about Virginia Quality, and see a list of participating providers in the Fredericksburg region, at virginiaquality.com.