‘In it until the wheels fall off:’ Childcare providers discuss impact of coronavirus

By MAKENA HUEY | La Mesa Courier

When the pandemic began, Bibi Carpenter, center director of University City KinderCare, warned the teachers about its impact.

“This is the new normal, this is what we’re going to have to start doing, there is a risk that you could potentially become exposed,” Carpenter said.

Then, she asked each of them if they were still willing to continue working at the daycare.

All of the teachers, including Jem Grey, said, “We’re in it until the wheels fall off.”

From the newly implemented health precautions to the increased risk of exposure, the two childcare providers discuss the impact that coronavirus has had on their lives and the lives of the children for which they are responsible.

Following guidelines

Carpenter said the most significant change she has noticed since the pandemic began is an increased need to be knowledgeable about safety precautions.

“You just have to be super flexible and stay calm because being in this industry — especially being a director — the parents and the staff look to you for the most up-to-date rules and regulations,” Carpenter said.

The daycare center and early childhood education facility has 150,000 locations nationwide, and — unlike the 600 San Diego County facilities that immediately closed — the University City location has remained open during the duration of the pandemic. The staff immediately deep cleaned the entire facility, and teachers completed a mandatory training session on safety guidelines.

The facility typically accommodates a maximum of 132 children, but with state-imposed limitations and concerned parents, only 30 children currently attend the daycare. Carpenter said these smaller group sizes have created a financial burden.

According to a July 20 KPBS article, this negative impact on childcare providers is exacerbating the pre-exisiting shortage of childcare spots in San Diego County, contributing to the economic crisis. Economists have estimated that $50 billion over the next six months would need to be spent nationwide to sustain the childcare industry, and the county is proposing that $25 million in CARES funds be allocated to schools and daycares to help compensate for the loss.

The significant decrease in children, however, has made social distancing easier, Carpenter said.

The staff set up a pod structure in which teachers are assigned to specific classrooms, and they placed markers on the floor to designate where children can sit and stand.

KinderCare now opens an hour later and closes an hour earlier so staff members have sufficient time to sanitize the classrooms.

Parents are now required to drop their children off at the front door rather than entering the building, and teachers take the children’s temperature upon arrival before having them wash their hands.

Practicing self-care

Grey, who also serves as program specialist, said the stress of the coronavirus is impacting children as young as 2, prompting her and her fellow teachers to talk to the children about how to stay safe and take care of each other during this time.

“One of the main things that we’ve seen in the classroom is that we’re having more difficult conversations with the children and just explaining to them how things have changed but in a positive manner,” Grey said.

Grey said the teachers often discuss the precautions they are taking outside of the classroom to encourage their students to do the same.

“We’re open enough here to have each other’s back and create an open environment where the kids can talk about things too,” Grey said.

Teaching children about social distancing and other ways to remain safe during the pandemic begins at home and is expanded upon in the classroom by encouraging children to ask questions, which Grey said helps alleviate any tension they may be feeling.

When a child expresses fear regarding the virus, Grey said she takes them to a secluded area of the classroom, calming them down and explaining the situation in a way they can easily understand.

“We’re all going to work together to make sure that the world is safe and healthy,” Grey tells her toddlers.

Many parents are understandably worried that the coronavirus will negatively impact their children’s education, but Grey said children are also learning positive life lessons during this time.

Grey said new classroom routines have taught the children to look out for each other and themselves, as more experienced students will teach new students the safety guidelines and gently remind them if they are standing too close.

“It’s really enabled the kids to be more autonomous,” Grey said. “We want kids to be able to speak up from themselves and put themselves in a healthy environment.”

Feeling safe

Although they recognize that their job puts them at higher risk for being exposed to COVID-19 — especially because many of their students are children of essential workers — Carpenter and Grey said they feel safe at KinderCare because they are putting in the effort and taking precautions.

“I honestly feel more nervous about going to the grocery store than I do being here at work just because of the type of environment that we set up,” Carpenter said.

Grey agreed that the staff’s steps to eliminate unknown variables have created a secure space.

“The parents usually ask me when I’m doing a zoom call or tour, ‘Do you feel safe?’ and I tell them I do suffer from autoimmune issues and I tell them there’s no other place I’d rather be than right here because I know what’s going on in here,” Grey said.

Both Carpenter and Grey said they are grateful that so many parents trust them to care for and teach “their little gifts — their little angels” during this unprecedented time. As a result, they promise to be as responsible as possible outside of their workplace.

“Ultimately, it’s important that people are open and transparent,” Carpenter said. “What happens here is so pertinent so we don’t go home and spread it to our families.”

The KinderCare app has become especially helpful because it allows the teachers to communicate with parents remotely and update them about their children’s accomplishments throughout the day.

“We have created a really close bond with the families that have been with us through this time and our staff that have stuck it through,” Carpenter said.

Being appreciated

Being a childcare provider during this time has been challenging, but one positive outcome of the pandemic is that they now feel more valued and respected.

“A lot of times, this is a very thankless job, but through this, we have seen how much the parents really do appreciate us,” Carpenter said.

Thirteen percent of working parents have reported losing a job or reducing hours as a direct result of a lack of childcare, according to the KPBS story. Grey said she has seen a lot of social media posts from parents who are now at home with their children and realizing how much work is involved in being a teacher.

“This is what we do, this is who we are, so I definitely appreciate that COVID has brought to light the things that we do,” Grey said. “We’re not just babysitters, we are educators, and this whole thing has proved it.”

— Makena Huey is a senior at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, pursuing a major in English and minor in journalism. The San Diego native was the editor-in-chief of Currents magazine and is currently the managing editor of the Graphic newspaper.