Early Care and Education During a Pandemic: High Quality Care Matters, Especially During COVID-19

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 third in a series of articles to highlight the work of San Francisco’s early learning programs.

Part 1: Childcare for Essential Workers | Part 2: Staying Connected Virtually | Part 4: Resiliency: This Is What Our Emergency Child Care System Represents


 

Children need early learning opportunities and social connections to make sense of the world around them. Even in times of stress and confusion, like the current COVID-19 pandemic, kids are able to be resilient when they have social and emotional support from caring adults. 

Through this public health crisis, in emergency child care and remotely, providers continue to provide high quality early learning experiences that provide the social-emotional support and consistency that children need to thrive. 

Some of that is made more challenging by the rigorous health and safety guidelines that the emergency child care programs are following. “The ability of emergency child care teachers to be present for children while experiencing anxiety and stress, and having the distraction of constant cleaning that needs to happen, is a paradox in the classroom,” says Ingrid Mezquita, executive director of OECE. Teachers are juggling these many responsibilities while ensuring that the children in their classrooms receive the support they need. 

“The ability of emergency child care teachers to be present for children while experiencing anxiety and stress, and having the distraction of constant cleaning that needs to happen, is a paradox in the classroom.” – Ingrid Mezquita

“I’m very proud of the team of teachers who are in our emergency care program. They help each other, remind each other about the guidelines. We are always looking for ways to improve,” says Connie Luu, director of early childhood education at TEL HI Preschool. Despite the increased demands of keeping the classrooms safe, “We still have to be open for learning every day.”

Teachers also make a point to talk to the children in their emergency programs about what’s happening and how that makes them feel. “In the beginning, there were a lot of emotions and a lot of anxiety expressed by the children. The older kids knew what was going on…. We have one child that would say, ‘Give me 15 minutes, everything is okay.’ She would tell me, ‘Everything’s okay. Right?’ and I would reassure her. ‘Yes, everything’s going to be okay,’” shares Jessica Campos, center manager at Wu Yee Children’s Services.

Children get reassurance from each other, as well, even while their programs ensure that they follow social distancing guidelines. “Children can’t always put thoughts into words but through their artwork, you can get a sense of what they’re thinking about,” says Jacqueline Coo, co-director of The Storybook School. “Before the coronavirus, the kids usually slept next to each other or they had a nap time buddy. Now during nap time, we have all the children six feet apart. And in their drawings, they placed their little nap time mats scattered in different areas. I overheard them explaining, ‘After the virus, we can sleep closer and I can get next to you, and she can get next to me.’”

Supporting Children Remotely

For the programs that are connecting with families remotely, maintaining these connections also requires a learning curve. “In early education there’s a lot of physical touch. You know, we give hugs and high fives, and do a lot of activities in close proximity. But our teachers have to take work that’s very much “in-person” and try to do it remotely, to still be able to provide the connection with peers and with the child and the teacher,” says Cheryl Horney, child development program director, Wu Yee Children’s Services.

“In early education there’s a lot of physical touch. You know, we give hugs and high fives, and do a lot of activities in close proximity. But our teachers have to take work that’s very much “in-person” and try to do it remotely, to still be able to provide the connection with peers and with the child and the teacher.” – Cheryl Horney

Programs have been innovative. Dianne Alvarado, director, Judith Baker Child Development Center, shares, “We gave children soil in sandwich bags, flower seeds, and suggested planting activities. The impact has been joyful. It’s reassuring to have something to watch grow at home that engages children and their families.” By doing common activities that build on what children are familiar with from their classrooms—in this case, the program’s sensory garden—those familiar connections with teachers and classmates can be maintained and learning can take place.

Looking Ahead

This is exactly why the work of early childhood education is so critical—and will continue to be throughout the crisis. Educators are concerned about learning loss among all students who are learning remotely, and especially those who are not able to stay well-connected to their classes. There will be much work to do when in-person classes resume. Educators are also thinking ahead to how they’ll continue to support children emotionally as the crisis evolves.

Jessica describes that children in her emergency childcare classrooms have adjusted to their new normal after the initial anxiety and stress about being put in a new place. “Now that they’re getting adjusted to the classroom, you can tell that they’re taking a little bit more ownership. A child has told me, ‘I’m not sure if I want to go back to my classroom, can I stay here?’ And so that’s another thing. When this is over and they have to transition out, how do we prepare them for that additional transition without causing another trauma situation?”

It is looking ahead, planning for what’s to come, and continuing to adapt to meet new needs— how to keep safety measures in place as more families return to programs, how to welcome kids back, how to help kids say goodbye to their emergency program—that will help teachers help children and their families. “My hope is that the sense of community, working together and understanding each other’s needs, and having an open mind about trying new things, like technology and new friendships between children, continues beyond the current crisis,” Jacquelyn says. 

“My hope is that the sense of community, working together and understanding each other’s needs, and having an open mind about trying new things, like technology and new friendships between children, continues beyond the current crisis.” – Jacqueline Coo

Even with all the changes in their daily lives, children still have joy, curiosity, and a willingness to learn—and early educators are creating opportunities for children to have fun and learn, in person and virtually. Cheryl says, “I hope the community sees how important the early education profession is and how important our early educators are because they’re doing amazing work.”

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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