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Early Care and Education During a Pandemic: Providing Child Care for Essential Workers

COVID-19 has changed the pace of neighborhoods and our daily routines in San Francisco, but access to resources and public services continues to be a significant need for many children and their families. Like food, housing, and transportation, access to high quality early childhood education is a basic need for all families. That has never been more clear than now, as millions of families across the country struggle with how to work and care for their children while schools and early learning programs are closed.

Like many other types of businesses and organizations, early childhood education programs are learning to navigate this new environment so that they can continue to serve children and families. This is the first in a series of articles to highlight the work of San Francisco’s early learning programs.

Part 2: Staying Connected Virtually | Part 3: High Quality Care Matters, Especially During COVID-19 | Part 4: Resiliency: This Is What Our Emergency Child Care System Represents | Part 5: Teacher Profiles


San Francisco’s shelter-in-place mandate means that most early learning programs in the city must be closed. Yet child care remains a necessity, especially for health care workers and others on the front lines providing essential services out of their homes. 

In the days immediately before and after the mandate went out, there was confusion and worry for families and programs alike. The need for a way to provide care for essential workers quickly became clear. “Our last day for regular service was March 13, and during that time we just had a lot of uncertainty, we didn’t know what was going on. We had a couple of families tell us that they were essential workers, nurses, and ask what they should do about childcare. That’s how the conversation about offering essential care started for us. Then we talked to OECE,” shares Connie Luu, director of early childhood education at TEL HI Preschool.

Ingrid Mezquita, executive director of OECE, says that, in the beginning, it was complicated. Childcare was listed as an essential service in the shelter-in-place order, yet many programs didn’t realize and chose to close. Others had staff who couldn’t work because their own children were home, or due to health concerns from being in a vulnerable population. 

OECE began partnering with San Francisco Recreation and Parks and the Department of Children, Youth, and Families to coordinate on a citywide emergency childcare program for children birth through high school. And, OECE began reaching out to city-funded early learning programs, like TEL HI, to determine which programs were able and willing to open for emergency childcare services.

At the beginning, five sites opened. Today, there are 14 emergency child care sites serving almost 200 children of essential service workers who are exempt from shelter-in-place under the public health order.


Staying Safe While Staying Open

The most critical piece of the puzzle has been ensuring the health and safety of the children, teachers, and staff of the emergency programs. This was an early concern for educators. OECE worked closely with the Department of Public Health to establish health and safety guidelines and to figure out how to operationalize the guidelines in early learning classrooms. 

“We developed online training, as the public health guidance was coming through, so that it could be operationalized in the classrooms and easily explained to the children,” Ingrid says. “We have focused on ensuring programs have access to a nurse, mental health support, and the supplies they need to sanitize—supplies that don’t exist or are hard to come by. It was a scavenger hunt.”

“We have focused on ensuring programs have access to a nurse, mental health support, and the supplies they need to sanitize—supplies that don’t exist or are hard to come by. It was a scavenger hunt.” – Ingrid Mezquita

Programs have reduced enrollment to meet low child-teacher ratios so that within each classroom, children can be socially distanced. Strict cleaning and sanitation guidelines are followed, including cleaning toys after each use and frequent handwashing. For teachers, this means trying to maintain consistency and keep children engaged, while taking dramatically different approaches to their usual activities.

Teachers at the emergency childcare program at TEL HI Preschool

“It’s a switch. Teachers are teaching outside of their norm. They give children individualized play space and activities in a box for them to use. They separate the children within the classroom and sanitize a lot,” says Jessica Campos, center manager at Wu Yee Children’s Services-Southeast. Jacquelyn Coo, co-director at The Storybook School, agrees. “We are trying to carry on and keep doing what we usually do—keep a routine for the children by doing reading circles and art activities—but with some adjustments for social distancing.” 

In a setting where sharing toys is usually encouraged, and cuddles and hugs are the norm, it is a challenge to help children understand the new rules, while still helping them feel secure. 

“We focus on building the relationship and giving the kids what they need. We have a child that asks for high fives. As a teacher, I’m going to give her that, because that’s what comforts her, and we’ll go wash hands right afterward,” says Jessica. “They need to know that we’re present, that everything is going to be okay, and that we’re staying safe.”

“They need to know that we’re present, that everything is going to be okay, and that we’re staying safe.” – Jessica Campos


Thank you to the early educators who shared their experiences with OECE. Some quotes have been edited for clarity and length.

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