Even while Rhode Island lifts mask mandates and boasts the highest percentage of vaccinated residents in the country, one key population is still waiting to be vaccinated: children under five years old, who still lack an FDA approved COVID-19 vaccine. In light of this, preschools have practiced vigilance and weathered obstacles throughout the pandemic in order to continue educating the next generation.
At Brown/Fox Point Early Childhood Education Center, it is still common to see children running around in the playground with masks. Since most of their students are younger than five and therefore not vaccinated, careful planning and prioritization of health and hygiene have been key, according to Executive Director Joe Pinsonneault.
“We started this journey back in March 2020 when we were mandated to close on March 12,” Pinsonneault said. The next couple of months before reopening in June were spent developing a comprehensive COVID-19 Child Care Plan that needed to be approved by the state, which included stringent strategies for sanitation and hygiene, as well as decreases in enrollment, he added.
The pandemic also affected staffing patterns as classroom sizes decreased to ensure social distancing. While Brown/Fox Point was able to bring back all of its staff, the pandemic greatly changed the involvement of families in the program, Pinsonneault said. Parents were only allowed to enter the building starting last week.
Mask mandates for students at Brown/Fox Point have also changed recently, with children allowed to remove masks outside, during rest times and during meals while staff members still remain masked.
“We were one of the first programs in Rhode Island to actually include a mask mandate for children, so our children are still required to wear masks inside,” Pinsonneault said.
Initially, when preschool programs did not mask, the spike of cases around Thanksgiving 2020 prompted them to have a conversation with families about masking, Pinsonneault said.
“I believe 89% of our families asked for their kids to wear masks inside, so it made it really easy,” he explained.
“We created a book called ‘Mask Wearing at Brown/Fox Point,’” Pinsonneault added. “We read it at school, and then we had practice days where you could just wear your mask as much as you could.”
After arriving back from Thanksgiving break in 2020, the mask mandate went into effect.
“The kids did beautifully,” Pinsonneault said. “Kids are really resilient relating to the pandemic.”
At Child’s Play, a parent-teacher cooperative preschool in the East Side, Education Coordinator Sarah Vecoli noted a similar resilience in children during the pandemic.
“In a lot of ways, children are really adaptable,” Vecoli said. “We had a lot of fear as educators starting in the pandemic (about) how things would look, what it would mean for them or how it would change their experience, but children are resilient and they adapted really well.”
Vecoli noticed that the greater societal focus on health affected children’s attitudes in the classroom. “In the beginning of the school year, we typically ask the children what the rules for the classroom should be, and typically we hear things like, ‘keep your hands to your own body’ and ‘be kind to people,’” Vecoli said. In recent years, these rules became much more health focused, including phrases like, ‘wash your hands’ and ‘keep your mask on’ being emphasized, Vecoli said. “It was representative of all the input they were getting from their lives.”
At Child’s Play, the decision to wear a mask was up to families, as each had individual concerns about health, safety and childhood development. “We had decided to really just make it a family choice because we have children that have developmental delays, speech delays (or) autism,” Vecoli said. “Because early childhood is really the first time you start to observe that, as educators, there were some concerns about what that would mean for children.”
As a parent-teacher co-op, parents were heavily involved in the discussions and planning behind dealing with the pandemic. “We felt a very heavy responsibility of keeping people safe in a time that was so unknown, and for educators, especially of young children, that is our number one goal,” Vecoli said. “The fact that parents were willing to help with so much of running the school really took off some of the stress of the staff.”
In terms of childhood development, Vecoli is not yet sure of the pandemic’s impact but believes that Child’s Play will need to make efforts to attend to the different ways students have been affected by the pandemic.
“I don’t think we will truly know the impact (of the pandemic) for a while,” Vecoli said. “Most children were just coming to school and just going home, so they weren’t going to playgrounds or doing playdates. We’ve noticed (socially and) emotionally that children are now just needing maybe an extra year in the classroom, but we don’t see that as a bad thing … we see that as recognizing that there was some impact and meeting that need.”
“For many, (childcare has) been challenging … I think that the impacts of COVID have really brought to light the struggles of that area in our society,” Vecoli said. “As a co-op, it has been specifically challenging because so much of the pandemic is personal about comfort levels for families and what makes them feel like their children are safe.”
Jessica Medeiros, a co-president at Child’s Play, has a four-year-old son at the school and a six-year-old in kindergarten. She said that it has been challenging to keep her family safe from COVID-19.
“We have been pretty conservative. We have not eaten in a restaurant indoors in two years, we haven’t flown anywhere. It’s pretty isolating,” Medeiros said. “Even after I was vaccinated, I still felt like I needed to be careful for my kids.”
Additionally, Medeiros shared that online school was not effective for her older son in kindergarten. “He was okay for maybe a week, and then at one point I noticed he was super apathetic and not wanting to answer questions,” Medeiros said. “At that point, I had him leave the meeting that day because he was just not acting like himself.”
Although staff are still wearing masks at Child’s Play, Medeiros is looking forward to the classroom opening up more. “We're starting to have parents come into the classroom again, so I think that there's a move in that direction as far as the school goes, and I'm really excited about it,” Medeiros said.
Despite the challenges created by the pandemic, COVID-19 highlighted the importance of childcare services and preschools.
“It changed how we view ourselves as a school. It changed us to more emergency childcare and a much stronger focus on health, hygiene and sanitation,” Pinsonneault said. “Families needed to get back to work, so in the beginning of this journey, we were required to take children that have state subsidies (and) children (whose parents were) frontline workers (or) health care workers.”
“As we have been moving, our mantra has been ‘slow and steady, safe and cautious,’” Pinsonneault said. “It’s impacted a lot, but what it has not impacted is how joyous the kids are to come to school.
Ashley Guo is an arts & culture writer and layout designer. She previously covered city and state politics as a Metro section editor. In her free time, Ashley enjoys listening to music, swimming, and reading!