For the second time in four months, early education centers across Massachusetts have abruptly adapted to changing pandemic-driven state regulations. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, all childcare centers instantly closed the doors to their classrooms. Those organizations that felt they could help essential workforce families by operating as emergency childcare centers did so. Others closed entirely.
“Now, we’re shifting gears again,” said Kristine Swan, Vice President of Youth Development for the South Shore YMCA, “from emergency care to licensed programs that meet the current needs of families on the South Shore. Those fourteen weeks of emergency care were intense at times, and we really missed our early education families. We’re so happy to be reengaging with them.”
The programs don’t look exactly like the programs the Y ran before the pandemic in Quincy, Hanover and Norwell, for sure. But as the world continues to seek the elusive “new normal,” the number of children in early education centers continues to grow as parents return to work. “Our new normal will be formed as a result of families partnering with us to specifically define their needs and how we can meet those needs as things change,” said Swan.
During the pandemic, the South Shore YMCA ran four emergency classrooms of up to 20 children each, two each in Quincy and Hanover. “That experience definitely prepared us for the reopening phase we’re in now,” said Swan. “Having practiced the screening, cleaning and social distancing protocols for the past four months, we felt prepared to transition into the next phase.” Ironically, after running classrooms of 20 children at the height of the pandemic, the Y and other early education providers are now mandated by the state to run their classrooms with no more than ten children at a time.
Sarah Cowan, Associate Executive Director for Youth Development, points proudly to the fact that during those four months prior to the Phase 2 reopening, the Y programs kept everyone safe. “We’re committed to staying on top of all of the changing guidelines and best practice recommendations,” she said.
Best practices don’t always come easily. The greatest challenge for the Y is related to its typical open door policy. In normal times, parents are invited into classrooms to see their children in the comfort of their daily settings and to interact with individual teachers. “We usually stand by this philosophy,” said Swan. “But now we have to consider the minimization of risk and exposure by limiting the number of people who pass through our screening area.” For relationships that require high levels of trust, with parents dropping off children into the care of others, Swan, Cowan and their team are seeking other means of offering engagement, through virtual tours, Zoom conversations and more. “We value our relationships with each and every parent, so we’re working on new ways to be sure that we remain connected,” Swan said.
As usual, the kids are reacting as they should, ultimately soothing the nerves of their parents through their innocent actions. “We had one dad who was really concerned about what the return to childcare would be like,” said Swan. “He met us at the door and kept asking, ‘How is this going to be? How is this all going to work?’ His son now gets to the door and runs into the building. He can’t wait to be with his friends.”
“Other families have shown similar reservations,” said Cowan. “And that’s perfectly normal. Separation from a parent after four months of a daily routine can be difficult for a child, and vice versa. A few weeks in we now have children from those families who are excited when they arrive and don’t want to leave us at the end of the day.”
As of now, the future is uncertain, as the state’s department of education and school districts across the region consider reopening elementary, middle and high schools. The many potential forms of school reopenings – full opening, hybrid face-to-face and virtual, or full virtual – will dictate childcare needs for the fall for thousands of local families. When decisions are made, early education centers may be challenged to “shift gears” once again.
“We will do what we have to do,” said Swan, to which Cowan added, “and having been through the emergency childcare process, we feel confident that our procedures will keep everyone safe, connected and engaged.”
About the South Shore YMCA
The South Shore YMCA is a leading charitable organization dedicated to strengthening community. Since 1892, the Y has served communities across the South Shore of Massachusetts and beyond, engaging over 60,000 adults, children, families and seniors each day through membership, critical social services, and programs that support a healthy spirit, mind and body. The Y empowers everyone by ensuring access to resources, relationships and opportunities for all to learn, grow and thrive. By bringing together people from all backgrounds, the Y’s goal is to improve overall health and well-being, ignite youth empowerment and demonstrate the importance of connections throughout our community. To learn more about the South Shore YMCA and our causes, visit ssymca.org. The Better You Belongs Here.