During the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the hardest-hit businesses have been daycares and pre-schools. Kids eschew social distancing by nature, and parents are often protective and want to reduce their child’s risk of infection. In the initial days of the pandemic, daycare centers were hit hard, with many losing students and revenue as they were forced to figure out how to operate safely.
More than 1,000 childcare facilities statewide were at least temporarily closed at the end of July, according to Washington state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF). The loss represented 19% of licensed providers and a quarter of spots — roughly 47,000 — available for children. But over months, the schools that remain open have adapted at some level.
As part of our inquiry, the Sammamish Independent interviewed staff from Aster Montessori, TLC Montessori and the Goddard School for Early Childhood Development. These schools shared with us both the challenges they have faced, as well as the solutions they have implemented to stay in business.
Aster Montessori School, located near Beaver Lake Park, took a short break of less than 2 weeks in March to quickly learn and adapt their operations to the reality of the pandemic, opting to go fully virtual.
“I was fortunate to be able to train the lead teachers within 10 days for virtual classes and they did a tremendous job,” said Aparna Masalkar, Director of Aster Montessori.
The school reopened with virtual classes on April 1 and saw around a 50% attendance rate, with enthusiasm for programs such as live music and Spanish lessons. After surveying parents in May, Aster Montessori decided to re-open the school building on June 1, offering in-person child care to parents who desperately needed it. Only about 25 percent of the parents sent their kids in.
Masalkar said her school is following strict state guidance for safety and sanitation. Kids take their own classroom learning supplies and are assigned their own table, with no sharing whatsoever. So far, the kids have been relatively adherent to social distancing and remembering not to hold hands. On-site music or Spanish lessons had to be put on hold due to restrictions on vendors coming into the building.
Parents have been asked to maintain social distancing at home as well. The process of signing kids in and out of school is now handled by staff in lieu of parents. Masalkar said these precautions have made returning parents feel more confident. The kids were also longing to come back and connect with their friends.
“We could see it on their faces and I really felt happy to be back, even with fewer kids,” said Masalkar.
TLC Montessori, located near Meade Elementary School, continued to operate without any campus closures through the lockdown due to some of its parents being essential workers, but their attendance plummeted as a result. It dropped to under 10% of their normal rate in March and stayed that way through June. Their summer programs during July and August operated at about 20% of the norm.
TLC Montessori suspended their financial policies and waived minimum payments for the parents who wanted to hold their spots while kids stayed home out of safety concerns. Their initial thinking was that the pandemic would only last a couple of months, but now the school has stayed at low capacity for over 6 months. The financial policies have been reinstated starting with the new school year.
Staff are taking temperatures daily and looking for signs of sickness among the kids. Masks are also mandatory for teachers. Disinfecting and cleaning remain a constant part of the daily routine.
TLC has modified their drop off and pick up procedures to reduce contact. Children are received outside the building and taken in after their temperature check. For everyone’s health, parents are not allowed inside the buildings.
Gradually, more students came back, especially when a new school year started in September. The kids quickly settled back into their routines, and were happy to be with other kids again.
“We haven’t experienced children settling down so quickly in the first week regular school,” said Kyungah Kim, Director of TLC Montessori.
The Goddard School, located across the street from Alcott Elementary School, had to shut down for a short period in late March. While they did experience a significant decrease in overall numbers at the beginning, they were quickly able to pivot to virtual learning to continue to support their community.
Abigail Yokers, the owner of the school, said she feels fortunate to now be open and serving families, but believes that her school has a long road ahead to get back to where it was pre-COVID.
The school has tried to expand to a variety of services that can be helpful to the families it serves. For example, its summer camp included care for school-age children, not just pre-school kids. The school now offers a school-age support program for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
The Goddard School adheres to rigorous sanitation and hygiene procedures. All high-touch surfaces and objects are sanitized regularly throughout the day and the staff conducts daily health screenings. Aligning with federal and state guidelines, Yokers said they are incorporating social distancing in the classrooms and throughout the school. Kids in different classrooms do not interact with each other, and all special events and outsider visitations are postponed until further notice.
Some of the staff we interviewed said they were dismayed by how long local employers are planning to maintain work-from-home policies. Every time local companies extend their work-from-home timeline, these schools have seen a drop in student registrations. With many privileged Sammamish residents working from home, parents are pulling their children, finding alternative arrangements and no longer paying to support these schools, creating a financial hole for these childcare centers that will be challenging to recover from. When the pandemic ends, these centers fear they may no longer exist for parents and students to return to.