Childcare and preschools have a vision

A GROUP OF preschoolers from Mary Johnson Daycare Center took a walk to read the outside reading project sponsored by Middlebury’s Ilsley Library. A dozen or so pages are displayed on posts circumventing Middlebury’s Riverside Park in the Marbleworks.

ADDISON COUNTY — As elementary, middle and high schools are implementing plans for reopening this fall, childcare services and preschools are preparing as well — and in some cases are implementing creative outdoor classes to start off the fall. While childcare and preschool facilities are independent and each develops its own programs, we talked with three area programs to learn how they were preparing to kick off the school year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 
Each of the three programs we interviewed were eager to share their plans for the school year, offer reassurances of being able to do so safely and highlight a silver lining or two as classes start over the next few weeks.
Ashley Bessette, program director of Evergreen Preschool in Vergennes, said their program will be operating outdoors for the first several weeks of the school year and then perhaps transition inside. For now, the school is equipped with an outdoor bathroom, outdoor hand-washing station and a great playground. 
“We are going to spend the first six to eight weeks outdoors, since transmission of COVID-19 is lower in outdoor spaces,” said Bessette. In addition to their routine activities, she said the teachers were excited to be incorporating a cozy book-nook and more creative arts areas into their outdoor space, along with planting a fall garden. 
Noting that the change in routine and the lack of parent participation might cause some trauma for the children, she said being outside and being able to be without a mask on occasion will be helpful. “We really want children to have the opportunity to get to know our full faces so that they can see us smiling and we can establish positive relationships through verbal and physical queues. Being in outdoor spaces will allow for more of that (no masks) than indoor spaces will.”
Bessette acknowledges the challenges that families and young children are facing in returning to school during this pandemic. To make the transition easier, Bessette and the other teachers will be doing what they are calling “lawn visits” to each student’s home. 
“We will be doing lawn visits to introduce ourselves to families before school starts. We will visit each child outside at their home to get to know them on their own grounds,” she explained. “After lawn visits, we will organize mini-playdates at our playground.” 
Bessette emphasized that the program’s teachers, like those in the two other programs we interviewed, are spending a lot of time and effort learning about the impacts of COVID-19 on child development, and figuring out how to overcome challenges.
“In preschool and childcare, we are really focused on social and emotional development,” she said. “In light of COVID-19, staff members, directors and others have made it their priority to learn about how COVID has impacted the social and emotional development in kids and how we can help them during this time.” 

In Middlebury, director of Otter Creek Child Center Linda January recalled the center’s reopening in June and what they hope to see change leading into the fall. 
“We reopened in June at 50% capacity and shifted our schedule to eight hours a day instead of ten,” January said. “We are prepared for full enrollment at 100% capacity by the start of the school year (this month), however, we don’t quite have those numbers yet. We are hoping to by the end of September.” 
She noted that the school “typically spends a lot of time outdoors, but we are not switching to an entirely outdoor-based program.” Otter Creek is set up with enough rooms to safely separate groups of kids and faculty, January added. 
Other changes to this fall’s operations include the practice of having parents go through the health checks daily and dropping their children off by their cars to a waiting teacher, instead of entering the center or getting involved with the morning routine.  
Recognizing that as a significant change, January said that the school will be inviting new families with infants to visit teachers in empty classrooms before the start of school to help counter the lack of parent engagement this fall. 
“Every week, every day, every hour is different, and planning is impossible,” added January, “but we are trying to stay as flexible, understanding and patient as we can. None of us ever thought we’d be greeting children at their cars in gloves, masks and face shields. Patience and understanding are so helpful on our end and the family’s end.” 

At Middlebury’s Quarry Hill School, Su White, the longtime director, said she was optimistic about the school’s fall plans and moving forward. 
White said Quarry Hill would be operating what will mostly be an outdoor program until they take a break at Thanksgiving. They’ll then offer remote teaching assistance for the next three weeks, break for the holiday and will transition to a winter program that is yet to be finalized. The schedule, White said, allows students and teachers to get acquainted with each other this fall, while also giving teachers extra time to talk about how to structure their winter program to be most effective.
To kick off the school year, Quarry Hill is organizing a gradual reopening and merging of groups to allow for contact tracing, as well as support for children who haven’t been in school for months. The school will be opening the week of August 10 for small group sessions of six kids and one adult per child. The adults will be socially distanced and masked — the kids won’t be. 
“We are excited, and our decision is strong,” White said. “We are going to do three weeks of small groups and then merge the small groups into larger groups and then we will start back to school with a week of half-days and then on September 8 we will open for our regular schedule.” 
Samantha Farrell-Schmitt, a teacher at Quarry Hill School, said that after their transition out of small groups and into a normal schedule, they are considering ways to connect with families through digital means so parents understand what their children’s day was like.
“That could mean parents watching circle time through a method like Zoom. That way when they pick their kid up, they can ask them questions that will be relevant and exciting for their kid,” said Farrell-Schmitt. 
White and Farrell-Schmitt both attested to the difficulties of drop-off times, but they hope that after the progression into a normal school week, kids will have developed some trust and the transition will be easier. 
White also noted that a curious silver lining was in the offing.
“What we have been finding out from other schools, since we are opening later than many, is that since health checks happen at drop-off and are one-on-one with parents, teachers and kids are having real connection for those couple of minutes and that’s really great grounding for everybody. It’s a silver lining that nobody really expected.” 
Quarry Hill School also received a grant from Building Bright Futures (BBT) to send students “get to know us” packages. The teachers will also be working with a woman who specializes in outdoor education with young children.  
“We are aware of the parameters that come with the pandemic, but we believe there are still a lot of things we can do, and we are excited about this new adventure,” said Farrell-Schmitt. 

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