As K-12 schools grapple with the idea of reopening to students, some West Orange-area childcare centers never closed. And they’ve also never had an outbreak.
As leaders in education nationwide scramble to put together best practices and procedures for safely reopening schools, they may have a thing or two to learn from childcare centers.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, many preschools, day cares and other childcare facilities have remained open for the children of parents working on the front lines and beyond.
The pandemic itself has wreaked havoc on many, but for families with children, the waters have been especially rough. Lost income, increased child-care responsibilities, home-schooling and mental health all have been stressors playing into already uncertain times.
With the start of the 2020-21 school year approaching, the potential health risk seems to outweigh those stressors for some families making the choice of whether to send their children back to campus.
A recent poll by advocacy group ParentsTogether — which surveyed more than 1,200 parents about reopening schools — found that 59% of respondents agreed schools should remain closed until they are certain there is no health risk. This is compared with the 19% who responded that schools should reopen as soon as possible to ensure students don’t fall further behind.
Now, though, some are turning to childcare centers for the guidelines they follow that largely have prevented major COVID-19 outbreaks.
In West Orange County, three preschools/child-care centers — The Learning Experience in Horizon West, The Goddard School in Winter Garden, and Ocoee Oaks Preschool — are among those that have implemented strict health and safety guidelines to protect staff, students and families from the virus. None of them has seen a COVID-19 outbreak.
The protocol for each starts with drop-off, when children have their temperature checks and health screenings. No parents are allowed in the building. Instead, teachers and administrators will come collect the children and bring them back to their classrooms.
SCREEN AND SANITIZE
At The Learning Experience, both parents and children 2 and older must wear a mask before entering the school’s vestibule outside the lobby. Parents are asked questions such as “Have you been in contact with anyone who has COVID-19?” and “Have you had any symptoms such as cough or sneezing?”
“We clean three times a day, so teachers now are allowed to actually mop the floors and do those things once the kids are sleeping,” said Sheila Verdugo, a lead teacher at the school. “When the children go out to the playground, we make sure to sanitize the classroom — the carpets and everything, because they’re constantly sitting on them.”
Cleaning and sanitization is key; everything from chairs, tables and toys to paint brushes and bathrooms are scrubbed multiple times daily. A company comes in over the weekend to do intensive cleaning throughout the building.
Masks also are required for both staff and students. The only times children don’t wear masks is on the playground and while sleeping or eating.
“They bring their own masks, and if the parent doesn’t have one, we provide one for them,” Verdugo said. “The kids are really good with it now. Sometimes, the kids have to get a breather — they are kids, they’ll take their masks down for a few seconds and put it back up — but our kids are doing pretty good. They don’t complain … they know it’s a routine for them now. … We started early on and we’ve been very communicative with them, and we show them visuals of how germs spread. … You’d be surprised how much they know. They’re like, ‘No COVID, we have to be safe!’ and they’ll put their mask on.”
Children also nap in alternating head-to-toe with a 2-foot minimum distance between mats and cribs. Verdugo added the school’s currently smaller class sizes help when keeping children spaced out, making it easier to prevent sharing any germs.
CLEAN AND COMMUNICATE
At The Goddard School, owners Pam and Shawn King are following similar guidelines and procedures. The school offers a courtesy curbside pick-up and drop-off, along with the health screening at the door.
“Goddard has strict procedures for the sanitization of toys and tabletops — that was common to us before this all began — so we’ve kept our standards for what we do in terms of our bleach-water solution for our toys, and we have a whole procedure we follow,” Pam King said.
Goddard also uses a special Halo disinfecting fogging machine, which uses a water-based solution with hydrogen peroxide that is then infused using oligodynamic technology. During this process, the hydrogen peroxide is stabilized and boosted with silver ions.
“Originally, we were going to just use it a couple days a week to fog, but now we’re using it every night,” Pam King said. “It helps us feel comfortable that when we leave at night and we hit our little button, our school gets fogged. It kills everything … any surface living virus and bacteria.”
Although children at The Goddard School aren’t required to wear masks, they understand more about COVID-19 than one would think. Social distancing is nearly impossible to teach toddlers, Pam King said, but children are still aware of the virus at a young age.
“They understand, they talk about it, they call it ‘Rona,’” Pam King said. “It’s cute, but it’s also really good, because they understand they have to wash their hands, they have to wear masks — some of them — because they are aware of the risk even at a young age. … We did invest in some really cool face shields for our older children, and they decorated them themselves and they’re beginning to wear them on and off in their classroom. They’re actually really receptive to them and very excited about their face shields because … they think they look like space rangers.”
Although the school has not experienced a COVID-19 outbreak, Shawn King said there was one isolated case involving a teacher who did not spread and has since been cleared. One challenge, though, is thinking about the families impacted by the virus, he said.
“The most difficult thing we have had is really so many of our families that were impacted financially that we lost,” Shawn King said. “That was very difficult.”
INNOVATE AND EDUCATE
Pivoting business models and offering new solutions for the community at large has been the name of the game for many local businesses and organizations during the pandemic.
For example, Ocoee Oaks Preschool has many families that have been sending their children to the school for a long time. When talks of school reopenings and what it would look like — along with Orange County Public Schools’ innovative learning plan, [email protected] — surfaced, school staff had an idea.
“For fall, we’re offering parents the opportunity to put their child here in a much more safe environment for LaunchED,” School Director Lin Lindsay said. “So some of our families are going to be doing LaunchED here for parents who are working and don’t have the ability to do both. … We were just talking about things we could do to help families because a lot of the staff here have school-age children and we’ve done a lot of discussion on, ‘What’s going to be safest?’ … It just seemed like a natural thing to do.”
Ocoee Oaks has been implementing enhanced safety procedures as it continues to offer preschool programming and camps; these will carry on into the fall semester. Those include recommending masks for children older than 2, giving each child his or her own box of art supplies, using an ionization system for sanitation, and using a rotating schedule throughout the day.
When the school year kicks off, each child participating in [email protected] at Ocoee Oaks will have his or her own cubicle and face shield.
“The younger kids don’t have the reading skills yet or the ability to focus,” Lindsay said. “They just need extra help, so we can provide that and keep the children safe, provide exercise breaks and still help them stay on track.”
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