Since the coronavirus school closures, child care centers across the country have been eerily empty. Finally, months later, most are headed towards reopening.
But as ECE centers prepare to welcome families, many professionals can’t help but wonder whether students will go back to school at all.
From fear of infection to lack of communication, reasons for hesitation are understandable.
But what does it mean for child care centers and professionals? Will students go back to school? And what can centers do to reassure families they’ll be safe?
We asked 6 ECE experts to give their thoughts on the ‘new normal’ as child care centers prepare for children to go back to school. Here’s what they said.
“I do think parents will continue to send their children—because they know, as we know, that childcare is essential… Other than their own home, the center is the next safest place to be.” —Cori Berg, Executive Director of Hope Day School in Dallas, TX, and Founder of ECE From the Heart
The more you find out about Cori Berg, the more you want to know.
From her work as Exec. Director of Hope Day School to her in-depth knowledge about pandemic-related concerns—Cori shares her hard won lessons in ECE, straight from the heart.
When it comes to reopening after the school shutdown, Cori is optimistic.
“I do think parents will continue to send their children—because they know, as we know, that childcare is essential. Even parents who work from home are simply not able to give young children the attention they need when they are working at the same time,” she says.
Cori has noticed many changes throughout the last few weeks—especially parents’ gratitude.
“We found toddlers were the first age group to return to pandemic care,” Cori says “But preschoolers quickly started filling up as well. After several months, parents had new gratitude and value for the work we do every day. Some parents even mentioned how their child’s rhythms were more in sync when they returned...”
According to Cori, the key is to remind parents that schools are an integral part of the community, and they’re here to help.
“Parents need to keep providing for their children and they need our help to do that. Other than their own home, the center is the next safest place to be.”
“[My first tip] is to listen to their fears and concerns. Even if you can’t take them away, it builds trust in the relationship. I may not be able to tell you what you want to hear but when I’m honest about that, the authenticity is more trust building.”
“Second is doing the hard work of creating a good safety plan that honors both the child experience and needed safety measures. It is not easy. It is not simple. And it is constantly changing as we know more.”
“And my top tip of what NOT to do—not talk about it. In the beginning, I’ll admit I was scared to talk about masks. I was scared to mention what happened if we had a positive case in our center. I didn’t want to scare families away. But I learned to embrace it. I modeled that it was okay to talk about it and that I was open to hearing their thoughts.”
“Some children have thrived at home while others have struggled.” —Cindy Terebush, author, podcast co-host and professional development provider
Cindy Terebush is a born communicator.
For Cindy, whether children go back to school will be a mixed bag depending on their circumstances.
“There will likely be some people who will happily send their children back, some who absolutely will not and others who will agonize over the decision. There are many reasons for the different perspectives, including work schedules impacting whether they have any choice, risk factors in the family, and the level to which people may be risk-averse.”
The other factor is how successful their experience with distance learning has been.
“It is also possible that their experience with distance learning could have an impact on their decision making. I've worked with some settings that have done great work mastering active, developmentally appropriate learning online but I'm sure there is a range of distance teaching skills as people were thrust into a situation for which they weren't prepared. Some children have thrived at home while others have struggled.”
“Transparency and honesty are key if your facility will be open for in-person services. Many factors will play into the parents' decision making, not the least of which is how much they trust the preschool to keep their children and families safe,” explains Cindy.
“My top tip for ECE leaders is to explain to families how you plan to adhere to guidelines related to COVID-19 social distancing and sanitation while still providing their children with a developmentally appropriate and enriching environment. This is a lot to ask and it won't be easy, but we are obligated to try.”
“I do think that registration will be lower all over the country, but it will depend on the area and the community response to COVID.” —Allison McDonald, Author and Founder of No Time for Flashcards
In terms of schools reopening, she believes parents will be keen for their children to go back to school.
“Some parents will absolutely be eager to send their children to preschool, especially for Pre-K. Parents know that early childhood is a vital time for development and don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to do so. Some areas haven’t been harshly affected by COVID and some families aren’t as risk averse as others.”
However, some areas that were harder-hit could see lower numbers of children returning to school.
“I do think that registration will be lower all over the country, but it will depend on the area and the community response to COVID. Some parents will be hesitant, but I think more will be eager to get back to “normal” and try to move on—and for most that includes preschool.”
“My advice is don’t [try and help parents overcome their concerns]. I don’t think that is our place. I think we can show the stringent steps we are taking to make schools as safe as possible but during a pandemic we can’t guarantee that a student won’t contract COVID at school. It would be professionally irresponsible to do so. If a parent is hesitant we can listen to their concerns and answer them honestly. That’s it.”
“[However], as teachers and administrators I think we can reach out and remind parents of the multitude of benefits that early childhood education offers children. Invite parents into our classrooms to witness that and then reassure them that it’s normal to be hesitant and ok to choose to keep your child home if that is what works best for your family.”
“Parents who have the ability to keep kids at home will likely choose that option until things feel more ‘normal’.” —Holly Homer, Author and Founder and CEO of Kids Activities Blog
And what it all comes down to is what’s best for the family.
“I believe parents desperately want to send their preschoolers back to school, but that decision will be based more on what needs to happen for their family.”
Holly believes families who have the means to keep children at home, probably will.
“Parents who have the ability to keep kids at home will likely choose that option until things feel more ‘normal’.”
“None of these decisions right now are easy. Parents are dealing with a million new and unexpected life details and whether or not to send kids to preschool is one of them. The first step is to show empathy for each family's different situations.”
“The second step that can be extremely helpful is to provide concrete data on the pros/cons. There is so much misinformation out there that it is overwhelming! Having real facts will assist families in making a decision that is right for them.”
“Many parents will have a lot of hesitation sending children back to school... [but] missing school can be distressing.” —Lauren Small, CEO at Early Education Business Consultants
Early Education Business Consultants is the brain-child of ECE pro Lauren Small.
Through her business, everything Lauren does is for the benefit of ECE center employees and the children and families they serve. Lauren believes child care centers’ key responsibility is to manage parents’ fears.
“Many parents will have a lot of hesitation sending children back to school. Fear is very high with staff and families, around potential exposure to the COVID-19 virus,” says Lauren.
But despite fear of the virus, Lauren believes parents are also anxious for children to go back to school.
“There is also much anxiety for parents who need to work and are unable to find reliable, safe childcare. Many families are also concerned about their children staying on track educationally, missing school can be distressing.”
The number one most effective strategy with reducing parent hesitation is to communicate well and often with families. You can build trust, reducing fear, and hesitations by:
“Each family has to consider carefully quite a number of variables in making a decision to send a child back into a classroom.” —Dr. Alice Sterling Honig, Professor Emerita of Child Development at the Department of Human Development and Family Science, Falk College, Syracuse University
With over 45 years in the field, Dr. Alice Sterling Honig has authored or edited 12+ ECE-focused books and more than 600 articles and chapters—plus she’s spoken at child care events from the USA to China (and just about everywhere in between).
Alice believes that when it comes to getting children back to school, it’s all down to family needs and what’s best for the child.
“Each parent must make an individual decision based on a variety of options and a variety of family needs, partly based on how old the child is. Some children can’t understand the importance of face masks. Some children are shy and bewildered and scared of a face mask. [Parents and teachers] will have to remain calm as they try to explain about germs in the air, and yet do so without frightening them.”
For Alice, there are certain challenges ECE leaders need to understand before they can approach parents about their hesitations to send children back to school. Here are a few of the challenges and concerns she indicates parents may be facing:
· “If a child is very impulsive then—even if they intelligently understand the need for social distancing and face masks—they may ignore [social distancing] requirements.
· If a family has few resources to help a child achieve success in learning online, this will raise problems for that child’s learning.
· If parents are desperately in need of child schooling in classrooms so they can earn, they may have to make different decisions that could risk exposure to COVID-19.
· [Parents will also be worrying that] if a regular teacher has high risk needs and chooses not to come back to the classroom, will their child then have lots of substitute teachers?”
“The family will need to balance whether at-home schooling could provide more consistency for their [individual] child. Each family has to carefully consider quite a number of variables in making a decision to send a child back into a classroom,” explains Alice.
We all know this is an uncertain time.
Employees, families and children are anxious and unsure about what the next few months will bring—so it’s no wonder our ECE experts’ opinions reflect that.
Many parents are eager to send their children back to school, but fearful about the risks this could bring. Some children have thrived at home, while others have suffered—but either way, both parents and teachers know children are missing out on key developmental benefits.
Here’s a roundup of our experts’ advice to help support your community when it comes to sending children back to school:
1. Listen: Listen to parents’ concerns and be open in your response.
2. Plan: Create a solid safety plan and share it with your community.
3. Talk: Don’t be afraid to talk about Covid-19, even if you don’t have the answers—honesty is the best policy.
4. Reassure: Let parents know how you’ll focus on social-emotional skills despite things like social distancing, and invite them into the classroom to show how the ‘new normal’ will work.
5. Be honest: Don’t make any promises you can’t keep.
6. Empathize: Show empathy for each family's different situation, and let parents know that whatever they decide is okay.
7. Be proactive: Make sure you communicate all your plans with your community and be proactive about what you share.
8. Provide data: Offer concrete data on the pros and cons of sending children back to school, so parents can make an informed decision.
9. Train: Make sure employees understand new processes so they can offer consistent communication to families.
10. Monitor and update: Keep up to date with current news and guidelines and update your practices regularly to match.
If the current pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the future is uncertain—but with a resilient framework and the right approach, you can prepare your ECE community for every outcome.