I’m probably preaching to the choir, but there are some unsung heroes in our midst that deserve some recognition. In March when Connecticut went virtual, some afterschool professionals among us got to work preparing to open child care service for essential workers! Afterschool professionals are on the frontlines of this pandemic, allowing others (like doctors, nurses, parademics, and firefighters) to attend work while children are safely cared for. 

Did you know that there was even a special project, dubbed “Project 26”, that provided emergency child care to hospital workers that was coordinated by the CT Office of Early Childhood? These child care programs had to be previously licensed and were chosen based on their proximity to hospitals. Hospitals workers could work long and arduous hours knowing their child/children were safely cared for. More than just Project 26, there are now many other programs opened for other essential workers outside the Project 26 model. 

I took to video conferences to learn more about the wonderful people who are providing care to our State’s youth during this crucial time. What are their perspectives and practices and what can we learn from them? 

Meet Ceara Ladue, School Age Programs Director at the Middlesex YMCA. She dives into the intricacies of emergency child care that her site has been operating for 73 school days since March 30th. Some children were already enrolled in a program at the Middlesex YMCA and continued to receive care as a child of an essential worker. Some new enrollees joined as a part of Project 26 and the partnership with Middlesex Hospital. 

Because the Middlesex YMCA re-opened at the height of the pandemic, recommendations were still solidifying from various sources. The team had two weeks to digest what they could, make sense of the safety procedures and policies that were in place, and prepare social distancing activities and curriculum. To err on the side of caution, when the programs did re-open Ceara and her staff took temperatures hourly and then three times a day! The full-time cleaning staff member also cleaned the bathroom’s high touch surfaces between every child’s use. The guidance has adjusted and now the Middlesex Y uses a health disclosure statement that parents sign, but the hourly routine did help put staff at ease, at first. You will see a pattern emerge that Ceara and her team take health and safety to the next level. 

Tip #1: Supply Baggies 

Another innovative idea that the Middlesex YMCA came up with was “purchasing supplies for each child to have their own” baggie of supplies. Each child got their own scissors, crayons, colored pencils, and markers, minimizing the staff need to disinfect these items between each use. Cost is a factor here, but weighed against the benefit of safety and time to clean and sanitize these items, it was worth it for the Middlesex YMCA. 

Tip #2: Visual and Physical Cues 

To help children understand and embrace social distancing, each kiddo sat at their own table. There are also X’s on the floor, like you see at the supermarket, to give youth a visual cue of where to stand and sit during dancing and gross motor activities. The idea of “6 feet” can be hard to conceptualize and Ceara and her crew have made it easier with their intentional set-up. Even the five year olds now reminded other children to “socially distance” because they notice the X’s on the floor. Brightly colored posters are also displayed in the bathrooms, right at students’ eye levels showing the steps to handwashing. 

Tip #3: Use Technology to Your Advantage 

On top of these safety precautions, relationships still need to be built between program staff and children and program staff and families. Ceara lauded her staff as extremely welcoming and warm, especially because parents had to drop children off at the front door and were not allowed in. One example of the way that Ceara went above and beyond to build rapport was to email parents information regarding the childcare staff that would be taking care of their children. Staff also used social media to share information with parents and of course, lots of pictures about what was happening inside the classroom! These little accommodations go a long way toward building trust and rapport during this challenging time. 

Tip #4 : Adjust Routines

Before, snack time used to be different. Now children at the Middlesex Y are called up one-by-one to wash hands to prepare for snack or meals. That way crowding at sinks is minimized. Staff thoroughly wash and disinfect tables while children are handwashing. “It definitely takes a longer time,” Ceara expressed. 

Afterschool Heroes! 

And don’t forget that most students who attended Middlesex Y’s Emergency Child Care engaged in some form of distance education until just a month ago. Most had laptops and required support from the afterschool teachers to complete their homework and assignments. This filled an essential void and showed how closely aligned informal and formal education is, especially during times of crisis. 

It’s amazing that afterschool professionals quickly pivoted to do this work and balanced being caregivers, models of health and wellness, teachers, and tutors- all while wearing a mask. Ceara says, “I cannot say enough great things about my staff. They stepped up to it without a problem.” They are superheroes without the capes. Parents agree. “The parents have been extremely appreciative, so thankful,” Ceara continues. Ceara hopes that this appreciation will continue, even after the immediate crisis and that there will be continued support, financial and otherwise, for this essential service. But she is worried about the many other programs that have had to close their doors and not re-open. 

As summer camps continue on and we begin to think about what school will look like in the fall, these programs have invaluable information for us- how have children, staff, and families persevered during this time using their partnerships and relationships to make the best of this horrible situation. Thank you to all these Out-of-School Time Heroes, pioneering the way in their in-person work with children during the Covid-19 crisis! 

If you have unsung heroes that you’d like us to highlight, please email mschone@ctafterschoolnetwork.org

For more information on Project 26, check out this link:
CTCARES for Hospital Workers (Project 26)