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News, University News

Local child care services adapt to pandemic

Families, services navigate after-school programs, child care during COVID-19

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2021

"We didn’t know if we could come back from this,” said Sabrina Uribe Ruggiero of the Montessori Community School.

When child care services across the state were forced to close operations on March 29, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, families had to adapt to losing an integral part of their daily routine. Rhode Island schools and child care organizations bore the brunt of reworking their programming, looking for ways to both serve these families’ needs and maintain some profit with an unprecedented inability to offer in-person services.

Just over one year later, the face of child care in Rhode Island has changed dramatically.

For some families, shifting toward remote work or education has meant that parents have more time to be around their children, and some no longer seek child care services. Others looked for alternative forms of child care, like long-term nannies, to find additional support. And even for child care services that did return to in-person programming, operations are markedly different, with even the youngest children wearing masks or observing social distancing guidelines.

Facing initial closures

The YMCA of Greater Providence has been a community staple in child care services since the opening of the first Providence YMCA in 1853 — the second oldest YMCA in the country. Today, the YMCA offers six full-service branches across the Providence metropolitan area, as well as an individual child care center in East Providence.

R.I. YMCAs have had to adapt significantly to new public health guidelines. Whereas the YMCA of Greater Providence typically offers services ranging from full-day toddler services to before and after-school care at its branch locations, the closure of state child care centers left the YMCAs with limited ways to support their clientele.

These in-person child care services are among the YMCAs’ “programs that have probably have been impacted the most,” said Andrea Champagne, regional director of the YMCA of Greater Providence. “Obviously, last year as of March the kids weren’t in school at all, and so we really didn’t offer any programs or services during that time.”

For the Montessori Community School of Rhode Island, going remote put the school’s ability to serve its community into question.

“It was a bit rocky,” said Sabrina Uribe Ruggiero MA ’17, executive director of the MCSRI. “The school offers extensive amounts of financial aid to families,” and, given the greater demand for financial aid due to widespread financial issues among the families during the pandemic, “we didn’t know if we could come back from this.”

The school had to make drastic budget cuts. It laid off its entire staff for the summer, having them collect unemployment checks through the month of June.

Navigating the new normal

In September 2020, the Providence Public School District began operating in person on a hybrid model, with students coming into schools for in-person instruction a few days a week and resuming remotely for the others.

Child care services across the state also looked for ways to create a new normal for the families they served. Following guidelines from the Rhode Island Department of Human Services, many were able to take on varying degrees of in-person instruction, under new conditions.

Despite reduced enrollment, the YMCA of Greater Providence began to offer in-person programming in September, including full-day care for children not returning to in-person school instruction.

“When we started the school year, several of our sites were offering care on-site at the YMCA,” Champagne said. “Our staff were getting kids onto their computers, to all their meetings … and offering that care during the day, as opposed to running our traditional before and after-school care.”

The YMCA’s in-person programming has closely followed state regulations on factors ranging from student capacity to social distancing, Champagne added.

“Traditionally, in our programs, the kids would be in this big room” and then break into smaller groups, with some going “down to the pool” and others “down to the basketball gym.” But now the YMCA keeps its students in pods, where groups of students do all of the same activities together to limit contact among the children.

For the MCSRI, the beginning of the fall marked a resumption of operations — with less enrollment, a limited capacity and strict sanitizing regulations.

As a Montessori program, which emphasizes students choosing their own lessons and utilizing hands-on materials, a greater number of interactive materials has meant a large time investment for cleaning and increased budget for cleaning supplies.

The school has also had to cut some aspects of its programming, including cooking classes.

But still, getting to reopen at all has been rewarding for Uribe Ruggiero and her school’s students and faculty alike.

“I think that we’ve done a really wonderful job of creating that safe space for students,” she said. To maintain engagement with the families of students, teachers have rotating shifts for daily child pickup, allowing them to individually talk to students. Other forms of community programming like virtual “Parents’ Nights” have helped families stay connected with the school during this time, she added.

Child care and the University

With limited options for in-person child care services throughout the pandemic, Oriel FeldmanHall, assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, has had to find new ways to support her family during this time. She and her husband hired a nanny to watch over their children, ages one and three.

For FeldmanHall, sending her three-year-old daughter back to in-person instruction has been a priority.

“My husband and I made the calculation early on that, if the school opens up again, we’re going to keep her in school,” she said. “We were willing to expose our family to the possibility of some COVID risk so that she could have the things that are really important to her development, (namely) socialization.”

Having schools reopen even to a limited capacity meant that FeldmanHall’s daughter has been able to engage with her peers, offering them a level of normalcy despite the circumstances.

Likewise, with many University professors and faculty members both working and supporting their families from home during this time, the University had to adapt its child care support programs to help families adapt to the new circumstances of the pandemic.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, “Brown quickly enhanced (its childcare support) to meet the changing needs of working parents during the pandemic,” Jennifer McKay, worklife program manager at University Human Resources, wrote in an email to The Herald.

New initiatives the University has created to better serve its faculty during this time include “incorporating a discounted nanny placement service,” as well as support in finding child care options online.

The University also “was able to adopt IRS changes to dependent care accounts,” which can help create flexibility given that, “with centers closing and camps being cancelled in 2020 … many participants (had) childcare plans and expenses (that) may have abruptly changed,” McKay added.

Supporting faculty during this time has also meant re-examining pre-existing child care programming and adapting it to new faculty needs as they arise.

For the University’s child care subsidy, which reimburses eligible faculty for their child care costs, the enhancements to current programming included an extension of the application period and an increase in the ages of child eligibility.

“This helped meet the need (for out-of-school child care resources) created by schools transitioning to virtual or hybrid models,” McKay wrote.

Moreover, the University’s back-up care service, which provides faculty a certain number of days when they can receive support from outside child care institutions in the event of a sudden or unexpected change in normal care arrangements, increased the number of days faculty could request. It also eliminated any co-pays beginning September 2020, allowing faculty financial assistance.

“Working parents at Brown are in a variety of different circumstances, and experience unique issues as the pandemic continues,” McKay wrote. “University Human Resources has provided faculty/staff with a variety of supports so that each individual can choose what is right for their family in the moment.”

“There won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution … so we are attempting to have flexible options in place,” she added.

“Above all, we are trying to stress the importance of self-care,” she wrote. “Right now, working parents are facing a lot of demands on their time; resources are available to help.”

Looking forward

As Providence and the state of Rhode Island continue expanding vaccine eligibility, child care services look toward reopening in-person programming to a greater extent.

The YMCA of Greater Providence’s child care services have seen a significant decrease in participation since the start of the pandemic.

“Trying to service the families that really need care and balance that with the financial constraints when you don’t have quite as many people as you need” has been difficult, Champagne said.

But the YMCA is looking to revamp its programming, not only to generate more revenue but also to better serve the changing needs of its community.

“The face of child care has changed with the pandemic, and people are looking for more flexibility,” Champagne added. “They’ve been able to make this work for, by the time (in-person programming reopens fully), a year and a half maybe with no child care … and so they’re looking for different options.”

“I think that traditional before and after-school care is really going to change, and we have this really great opportunity as a (YMCA) to look at those community needs and look at what people are really asking for,” she said.

Likewise, Uribe Ruggiero and her school are considering keeping some of the programming her school has adopted during the pandemic for the long-term. For example, parents are currently not allowed to come into the building, but having teachers directly help students out of their cars in the morning has made “the transition … much easier,” she said.

Through and through, parents and child care providers alike agree that, during this time, children have proven how well they can adapt to change.

Despite the impacts of mask wearing on “language engagement or socioemotional factors like surprise or happiness,” FeldmanHall noted that she is not worried for her child’s developmental trajectory, as her daughter still gets to see her family without masks on. “My take on this is that kids are incredibly malleable and resilient,” she said.

At the beginning of re-opening in-person programming last fall, those planning for the return at the YMCA of Greater Providence were largely worried that children would be unable to uphold the public health guidelines necessary to keep the community safe. But, Champagne said, this has not been the case at all.

Children observing health measures “has been much less of an issue than we thought it would be,” she said. “I think, just like adults, kids have sort of learned that this is just what we do now.”

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