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Frontline Heroes: How childcare workers operate amid pandemic

'Children have handled this way better than adults'

ROCHESTER HILLS, Mich. – Screams and laughter bounce down the hallways of KiddieKlub in Rochester Hills.

A child is standing with a teacher just inside the main door, waiting to be picked up by a parent. The teacher talks with the child as they both look out the window. Moments later, the boy’s father arrives at the door, stands outside and the teacher opens the door and hands him to his father.

Just steps away by the office door, Director Taylor Barlow chats with teachers. I’m setting up for interviews in an empty classroom, which is strange. This place is usually so full, but for obvious reasons numbers are down right now. The kids who still attend are with teachers in classrooms and, from the sounds of it, most are having fun. But these hallways and rooms aren’t as loud as they used to be and that’s because they aren’t as full as they used to be.

Now and then

At 7 a.m. on a typical work day, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, cars would come and go, delivering children to teachers as parents readied themselves for their workday commute. There was almost an art form to the drop-off. Parents learned how to set the right tone for their kids before leaving them, trying to ensure an easy, stress-free start to the day. On many occasions, one small thing would not be quite right and make the whole routine spiral out of control. Maybe the kids were cranky, maybe they had a bad experience the day before and didn’t want to go back, or maybe Mercury was in retrograde -- who knows. Things were easier then, in many ways, because they made sense.

The drop-off itself has changed here. Instead of walking sons and daughters to classrooms, parents are now met at the front door, where kids are then met by teachers and office staff and walked to their rooms. Parents had the system down, they knew what was happening and the teachers knew what to expect -- from students behavior to the number of kids in their classroom -- but that’s all changed.

“Before the closure, we had about 80 kids that were in the facility every day,” said KiddieKlub child care and preschool owner Candi Sproat. “We usually have about 20 to 30 kids that are here daily right now.”

For Director Barlow, her day is different than before as soon as she walks in.

“Prior to the pandemic there wasn’t much preparation for a normal day,” she said. “It was coming in, going into the office, setting my stuff down, going in to say ‘Hi’ to the teachers and letting them know that I was here, if they needed anything. (Now) we have a sign on the front door that says if you have any of these symptoms please notify management immediately.”

Barlow said everyone starts with hand sanitizer.

“And then there is a thermometer at the coffee stand right when you walk in the door, and all staff has to take their temperatures,” she said.

The staff has felt the effects of COVID-19 because of the changes. Teachers, who have been diligent in their sanitizing practices even before the pandemic, have had to take extra steps to ensure safety for everyone in their room.

“As soon a kid is done playing with, or done mouthing it, we’ll pick that toy up and immediately put it into our three-stepping bin so we can clean those toys regularly,” said Megan Dewey, the lead teacher in the infant room.

Dewey has a challenging job. The babies in her room put everything in their mouths, because, well, babies. KiddieKlub has stuck to a “three-step” process to clean toys.

“Step one is, you wash all the toys in soap and water,” Dewey said. “Step two, which is just plain water, and then our third step is a bleach-water mixture.”

Caring for the kids is the job the teachers signed up for, but the staff says much of their time is spent deep cleaning now.

Fear factor

Childcare workers put on their clothes in the morning, head out the door and before walking into work, hook their mask onto their face. They do this knowing that they know nothing about where many of these kids have been. Every family is different. Some are taking vacations, some are hosting get-togethers, while others stay locked down at home. They lather up the sanitizer and they fiddle with their masks, knowing sickness could walk through that door at any moment

“Being in this field, you’ve got kids with runny noses, you’ve got kids with a slight cough all the time,” said Barlow. “Do we think twice about it now? Yes. More than what we did before? Yes. But we’re taking every precaution we can with them.”

The staff says they’re a close-knit group who all trust each other and they all have the best intentions in mind. It’s that bond that lets them breath a little easier, even if it’s through a thin layer of cotton now.

As for the kids, they’re tough.

“The only change I’ve seen in any of my children, they’re just a little bit clingier,” said Samantha Keefer, lead Pre-K teacher.

Keefer said that may be because the kids are getting older and have been with her for so long -- they’ve really bonded to her.

“But beyond that, my kids act like nothing is wrong," she said.

Over in the infant room, Dewey has a different challenge. Infants respond to faces and expressions, so what happens when they have to stare at a masked teacher for the day?

“I honestly thought they’d be a little spooked by it, a little scared," she said.

Dewey learned otherwise.

“They got used to it really fast, didn’t seem to mind it at all,” she said.

Sproat, the facility owner, said the littlest ones have surprised everyone.

“They’ve all done great with it. They can still hear it in your tone of voice, they can see it in your eyes, you know. I’ve always said kids have a sixth sense and they can just feel emotion around them and just having the people here around them, that love them, make them feel safe and secure,” she said.

Through a child’s eyes

During the course of four different interviews there were some common threads. The most prominent: Children are generally happy and mostly unaffected.

“Children have handled this way better than adults,” said Keefer. “Obviously, they don’t know, they don’t even know the half of it, or a fourth of it, but for them, their lives were turned upside down and I don’t think a single one has acted as if it was.”

Down the hall there are shrieks and some crying, but those are normal kid things. None of the children looked sad or miserable or anything outside of normal.

“It is incredible to watch kids,” said Sproat. “They just move on and just move forward and I think that we can learn a lot from kids.”

Oh, and one more thing ...

This staff is close. Everyone here says they’re like a trusting family. That’s a nice thing to hear, but I think it’s natural to think, “yeah, sure, that’s what you want us to believe,” but they’re serious.

During the pandemic, Barlow had a major event happen.

“So, I actually got married on June 19. My husband and I were supposed to get married in November in the Bahamas and he is actually getting deployed in September.”

Here’s the part that shows how close this staff actually is:

“Long story short, we started rushing around trying to move the wedding up and then the pandemic happened and we weren’t able to do anything big, so, Candi, my boss actually got ordained and married us in her backyard,” said Barlow.

Barlow said it was small and intimate -- not exactly the wedding she’d always planned on, but, “It was very, very memorable. We’ll never forget it.”



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