The ABCs of social distancing: Child care programs reopen with caution

  • Maryann Ryan, from left, Samantha Vazquez and Courtney Szawlowski pull weeds and vines, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020 at the People’s Institute in Northampton. Ryan is the outgoing executive director who is retiring at the end of August, Vazquez is the early childhood director and Szawlowski is the incoming executive director. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jeff Doak hands a lunchbox to Fiona Pearl while dropping his son Chase Doak, 3, at Nonotuck Community School in Northampton Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tom Annese says goodbye to his son Lorenzo Annese as he leaves him with Fiona Pearl while dropping him at Nonotuck Community School in Northampton, Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Emmett Ladner, 5, looks through a window at Nonotuck Community School while his father, Jesse Ladner, waits with his daughter Lucy Ladner, 2, for a teacher to take Lucy into school Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jeff Doak waits in line to drop his son Chase Doak, 3, at Nonotuck Community School in Northampton Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Matt Muspratt puts a mask on his son Bastien Muspratt, 3, before dropping him at Nonotuck Community School in Northampton Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Right, Tom Annese waits in line to drop his son Lorenzo Annese, 3, at Nonotuck Community School in Northampton Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. Top left is Julie Martyn and her daughter Josephine Geryk, 3. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nate Clifford watches as his daughter Maya Jump-Clifford, 4, runs to meet friends during dropoff Thursday at Nonotuck Community School in Northampton. Clifford, who co-owns Cornucopia in Thornes Marketplace, pointed to his daughter’s friends and said, “We are thrilled they are open — we are so busy, and we are not as good friends to her as they are.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 8/6/2020 6:37:42 PM
Modified: 8/6/2020 6:37:32 PM

NORTHAMPTON — As school districts across the region close in on different reopening plans for students in the fall, some area child care programs have already been welcoming back children and plan to continue doing so.

At the Nonotuck Community School in Florence, which reopened July 6 after being shut down since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing kids back means big changes in the way the school operates, according to Executive Director Leslie Pilder. Among the new rules: Parents must navigate a new pickup and drop-off protocol, students can’t share toys, and face coverings for children over 2 is highly encouraged, Pilder said.

“The reality has been that kids are fabulous wearing masks — they’re just amazing,” Pilder said of students at her school. “They’re better than adults. They just don’t mind.”

When Gov. Charlie Baker handed down orders that closed businesses in the state in early March, child care and youth-serving programs were also put on hold, leaving many working families scrambling to find alternatives. Although some child care programs stayed open to provide emergency services, it wasn’t until Phase 2 of Baker’s economic reopening plan in June when discussions around reopening these shuttered businesses began gaining traction.

Pilder said that at Nonotuck, every employee, including herself, was furloughed in March. Eventually, the state Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) began accepting reopening plans; preschools and child care programs were given various requirements for reopening, such as making sure there’s a minimum of 42 square feet of space per child, capping classes at 10 kids, and implementing routine cleaning schedules.

Nonotuck welcomed some students back during the summer and soon began preparing for the fall. The school was fully enrolled with 63 children for the fall, Pilder said, but due to social distancing guidelines, the number of incoming students was cut to 44. Returning students were given preference, she said, and children under 2 will not be accepted for the fall as the classroom that usually houses them will be used to make space for older children.

“We’re losing easily 40% of our income,” Pilder said. “Tuition is really our source of income.”

Just last month, Sunnyside Early Education and Care in Northampton announced its closure after 45 years in operation, citing financial hardships that were exacerbated by families who decided not to send their children to preschool for the upcoming school year.

Nate Clifford, co-owner of Cornucopia Natural Wellness Market in Thornes Marketplace, dropped off his 4-year-old daughter, Maya Jump-Clifford, at Nonotuck on Thursday morning. Clifford said that when businesses started to close in March, he and his wife and co-owner of Cornucopia, Jade Jump, were “totally freaked” because they needed to keep their business running while also taking care of Jump-Clifford.

The couple eventually expanded their social distance bubble to friends they trusted who could watch over Jump-Clifford while they ran the store. When child care centers started to reopen, Clifford said he was debating whether or not to let his daughter go back — “but I think that they really nailed” reopening, he said of Nonotuck.

“You have to have some faith that the organizations that are putting together these rules are doing so in a very thoughtful way,” Clifford said. “[Nonotuck] has been very consistent … and it gives me a ton of confidence, frankly.”

Samantha Vazquez, early childhood director at People’s Institute in Northampton, said that her school shut down on March 13. The school stayed closed over the summer, but administrators plan for it to reopen on Sept. 3. Vazquez said that the school was “in good shape” to accommodate kids in the fall while following updated rules about class sizes and social distancing. She added that she expects the children at People’s Institute will adapt to a “new normal,” just as adults have.

“They’re going to learn that you can’t always hug your friend, you can’t share the same pencil or cars that they were playing with,” Vazquez said. “It’s going to be a learning curve, but I think that these kids are going to be able to adapt to it. They’re so smart.”

In Easthampton, Holly Kieszek is the executive director of Young World Child Care Center on Main Street, which reopened July 6. She said enrollment for the fall has been tighter than usual as her business went from a pre-COVID enrollment of 90 children to a capacity of 50. Inside the classroom, some learning stations have been removed, and children are assigned their own spaces for eating, she said.

In normal times, groups of kids at her program would be merged for the first hour of the day. But children and teachers must stay in their own classrooms for the entire day to prevent potential transmission of the disease, she said.

“Those things were and are still tricky,” Kieszek said.

Erika Houle, owner of The Houle School on Pleasant Street in Northampton, said she closed just like everyone else in March. But within a week, The Houle School was approved as an emergency child care center for children of essential workers, she said, which she ran until the beginning of July. Before COVID, Houle said she had 14 children enrolled, but she has five now.

“A lot of people decided to go the nanny route,” Houle said. “That seems to be a popular child care option right now.”

Pilder said child care is a necessity for many parents but noted that she and her teachers are still worried about the potential of COVID-19 emerging at Nonotuck. She said it’s possible that the state might shut down child care centers again, or that a classroom or her entire school might have to be shuttered due to someone showing symptoms.

“It’s sad and it’s scary,” Pilder said. “And for a lot of schools, that also means financial disaster.”

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.


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