Photo and Story by Kenya Anderson/Contributing Writer
When most people think about essential jobs, they often think about doctors, nurses, grocery store workers, truck drivers or postal workers. But other professions are unspoken heroes too, such as early childhood educators. Without them, some essential workers wouldn’t even be able to go to work.
For many childcare centers in Tennessee, the decision to stay open was an easy one, but COVID-19 has brought along hardships that many owners and directors weren’t expecting.
Owner and Director of Helping Our Children Prepare Educationally Early Learning Center Hope Oliver, and Wee Care Day Care Center Director Rochelle Smith, explained some of the newfound challenges with providing emergency childcare.
H.O.P.E. Early Learning Center opened its doors in August of 2019, 7 months before COVID-19.
“We were trying to build, trying to build, and then this,” Oliver said.“I am committed to staying open. Some of my parents are essential workers and need childcare. We are doing our diligence to clean.”
Smith has been at Wee Care for 38 years. She started out as a teacher and loved it.
“I enjoy working with children,” Smith expressed. “I feel it is my calling, it’s my passion…Some of my parents are still working, and I didn’t want to add the stress of finding childcare.”
For both centers, COVID-19 has changed the number of children who show up.
“For H.O.P.E, our biggest change has been in numbers,” Oliver explained. Wee Care has experienced a similar downshift.
H.O.P.E. currently has 34 children enrolled and is now averaging 12, while Wee Care went from 30 kids down to 10.
“The first week [Rutherford County schools] closed, it was a little lower,” Smith explained. “But it really started after parents started working from home and jobs shut down.”
Another problem day cares face is getting supplies. With many stores selling out of things as soon as they get them and having a limit on how many items someone can purchase at once, it’s hard for day cares to buy as much as they need.
“Before, I could go get enough milk or bread to last a couple weeks. Now, I’m having to make multiple trips a week,” Smith said. “I have to go Sam’s earlier in the day now. I need stuff like tissue and paper towels in bulk, and that’s the best place for me to go.”
“Searching for disinfecting items is like searching for gold,” joked Oliver. “I’m blessed to have people donate things as well.”
The centers are also having to make changes to their staff. Because there are less children present, they have to adjust the number of workers and schedules.
“Since we don’t have as many children the hours of my staff have changed,” Smith said. “Thankfully, I have an understanding staff.”
Oliver explained, “I’ve had two employees who live with higher risk people and have decided to stay at home… the rest of them have changed their hours while this is going on.”
When asked if they think this pandemic will change the way some people view early education centers, both directors said they believe it will, although it hasn’t changed much about the way the directors communicate with parents.
“I still send weekly emails. I will add some home lesson plan ideas and websites that I have found,” Oliver said, “I want to continue to have an impact. I don’t want them think out of sight, out of mind.”
Recently, Governor Bill Lee made the announcement that the state is encouraging day cares to stay open and places like churches that have available room to open day cares during this time. He added that the Department of Human Services will no longer be doing in person visits, and some regulations have been relaxed.
“Even if D.H.S. isn’t coming by, we aren’t changing anything,” Smith said. “We will still be doing what we were doing as if they will be coming tomorrow and we give the same care we were before.”
“Honestly, I don’t like that people think him relaxing means a decrease in the quality of our childcare,” Oliver expressed. “We will still be giving the same great care. The most significant thing relaxed is the hiring process.”
Through all of this, both directors have expressed that they are looking forward to the future.
“I know that this will be all over eventually,” Smith said. “We are planning for what we need to do.”
Even amidst the pandemic, Oliver is preparing for kids to come back.
“I understand why parents are keeping them at home, but we miss them.”
This change has been tough on day care facilities, but it’s also affecting the parents and children who normally attend Head Start, a federally funded program that aims to provide high quality care and education to children in low income families.
Mid-Cumberland Head Start’s Assistant Director of Operations, Amy Call, explained how COVID-19 has changed things for them.
“This affects us in every way… because we follow our local school systems… We are very hands on, so this is difficult,” Call said.
This pandemic is bringing in a new set of questions and worries for Call and parents. Head Start likes to help children transition from one step to the next. Usually, they offer the opportunity for children who are about to go into kindergarten a chance to look at potential schools first.
“So many plans are up in the air right now,” Call said. “Kindergarten registration, our end of the year celebration.”
Head Start doesn’t use social media, so they have had to innovate in order to keep contact with parents.
“We want families to know that we care, but we don’t want to bombard them with phone calls either… This can be overwhelming for families,” Call said. “Parents are working from home, and now homeschooling. Their children miss their friends and teachers.”
Regardless, Head Start is still providing their services any way they can right now.
“We’ve had to become very creative in the way we reach children,” Call continued. “We’ve done Ding-Dong Dash to take children supplies.”
Whether they are bringing distance learning supplies or household items, they are making sure children have what they need to succeed.
“Children who are in school, even at that age, do better later,” Call said. “And we want to continue helping with that… (The virus) is going to change the way we do services, but it won’t change us building relationships.”
To contact Lifestyles Editor Brandon Black, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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