Berkeley childcare providers find solutions, enable human interaction in time of isolation

Local childcare providers have risen to the challenge of looking after their charges during the pandemic. They have even found silver linings amid the heightened restrictions.

Anne Bauer and Susan Stevenson, co-owners of Aquatic Park School, in the school's "outdoor classroom." Photo: Kelly Sullivan
Anne Bauer and Susan Stevenson, co-directors of Aquatic Park School, in the school’s “outdoor classroom.” Photo: Kelly Sullivan

This Discovered in Berkeley story is brought to you by Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development.  

On a recent August morning, a parent dropped off her child at Aquatic Park School in West Berkeley. Susan Stevenson, owner of the childcare center, stretched her arms out toward the parent, as if to embrace her. But instead, Stevenson wrapped her arms around herself. The parent did the same, and the pair gave each other a “pandemic hug” from a distance. The socially distanced moment represents the new way of things for Berkeley’s childcare, camp and enrichment programs, which are providing the care that families need, even under challenging circumstances.

“Love and joy are our main values. Typically, children would be hugged and held and given affection everyday by all of the teachers. We haven’t been able to do that like we used to,” Stevenson said. While child care organizations are open for small groups of children, necessary precautions have made care-givers’ work more difficult.

Still, childcare providers are finding solutions and enabling the human interactions that are badly needed in this time of isolation. “We have tried to creatively address that desire for connection with one another,” said Anne Bauer, who co-directs Aquatic Park School with Stevenson.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, childcare was available only for the children of a limited set of essential workers, while most families sheltered in place. But, in early June, the City of Berkeley’s health order permitted childcare for everyone, granting parents a reprieve and children the ability to socialize with other kids. At childcare centers and after-school programs across Berkeley, kids are playing ping-pong, conducting scientific experiments with slime, and exploring the outdoors.

“That first week with our doors open, my heart was exploding with joy, watching the children reunite. They were overjoyed to be together again. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve seen,” said Stevenson, whose school serves infants to preschool age children. And parents have seen the positive impact. “I’ve heard parents say their children are more relaxed. They’re happier, they’re sleeping better and eating better.”

Open doors have come with social distancing restrictions and safety precautions for childcare providers, which simultaneously add costs while decreasing the number of students they can serve. (The City of Berkeley Health Order requires that daycare centers serve stable groups of no more than 15 children for at least three weeks at a time.) Over half of Berkeley’s childcare and enrichment organizations are operating at reduced capacity and a third are closed altogether, according to a survey conducted by the City of Berkeley Office of Economic Development. Aquatic Park School, for instance, is serving half the students it normally does, while Monkey Business Camp, which just completed a six-week summer, was at 20% of its usual summer capacity.

As a result, some childcare providers are working at current maximum capacity with long waitlists, but are still making a fraction as much as they normally do.

Childcare industry entrepreneur Kristen Davis, at home, in her role as mother. Photo: Courtesy Kristen Davis

“I usually have a waitlist that is about a year out — and still do. However, COVID has affected my headcount because of the uncertainty of everything,” said Kristen Davis, who runs Bella’s Babies out of her home. For the childcare providers that are open across the country, enrollment is down 67%, according to a survey by Buffett Early Childhood Institute.

But the smaller groups have also been a bright spot for some educators, who can cultivate deeper relationships with kids.

“When you have the small group, you’re able to give more one-on-one attention,” said Tracy Hollander, who runs Hands-On! STEAM lab, an enrichment center for young kids focused on science and engineering. Hollander has a wide array of tools and toys at her disposal: she introduces toddlers to pipetting using turkey basters and, beginning at age four, kids can play with Cubelets — robotic cubes that serve as an introduction to coding. “I pride myself on customizing my materials and experiences. When it’s such a small group, I can really, really customize.” If it weren’t for the cost, Hollander would love to keep groups this small permanently.

In order to keep siblings together, the groupings of kids have also changed, resulting in multi-age groups that were previously rare in early childcare. Though Stevenson was hesitant at first, the result has been beautiful: “We love watching the siblings take care of each other. We see empathy with the older children helping the younger children,” Stevenson said.

Tracy Hollander in the HandsOn STEAM Lab. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
Tracy Hollander, cleaning up the Hands-On! STEAM lab in preparation for the next day’s camp. Photo: Kelly Sullivan

The financial burden of these changes has been substantial for childcare providers. More than 70% of childcare centers nationally are facing new costs, including the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies, according to the Buffett survey. Nearly a fifth of Berkeley’s childcare organizations have received a government grant that is helping them stay afloat. A smaller percentage have raised tuition fees, charging more per student to make up for reduced enrollment. Others, like Aquatic Park School, have raised money from parent donations, in addition to receiving a government Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan.

Nevertheless, over 60% of childcare providers continue to provide academic scholarships to students who need it. So far, every family who applied for a scholarship to Hands-On! STEAM lab or Monkey Business Camp received a 50% cut in tuition.

Childcare providers also took additional precautions beyond cleaning to keep kids safe in their care. Rather than share materials, kids at Hands-On! STEAM lab got their own canvas bag filled with supplies, such as new markers and coloring pencils. Kids even sat in their own chairs, with their name taped on the back. At Monkey Business Camp, a schedule ensured that each of the three pods gets time in different areas of the yard or at the park, each with their own equipment. Kids older than 2 were required to wear masks, and teachers peppered them with reminders to pull the masks above their noses. And then there was the hand-washing. Lots and lots of hand-washing. Heather Mitchell, the founding director said, “The kids really adapted so well to all the changes.  They seemed so happy to be with other kids, so were willing to put up with these adjustments.”

Camp staff also found creative ways to make social distancing requirements work for children. When waiting to wash hands, Monkey Business campers were directed to find a taped spot on the ground, or to “spread their wings” (when walking back from the park). Indoors, counselors encouraged kids to bring their own blankets and pillows to craft plush, socially distanced nests for story time.  Kids still played board games, or ate lunch at the same table, but they sat diagonally across from each other, rather than face-to-face.

Heather from Monkey Business Camp. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
Heather Mitchell, Founding Director of Monkey Business Camp, alone in the garden. Photo: Kelly Sullivan

But educators know how precarious their little childcare bubbles are. They know that the adjustments they have made are not enough to guarantee that kids and adult supervisors don’t get sick. As a result, childcare providers like Davis have been strict about having sick kids stay home, in line with the City’s public health order.

“Typically, I don’t mind wiping noses. But I have a zero-tolerance policy at this point. I’m not accepting kids with low-grade fevers or snotty noses,” said Davis, who worries about her own five-year-old child, who has moderate asthma. “We haven’t had to make major changes, but we have put a magnifying glass on our typical sick policy.”

As they prepare for a fall of remote learning, childcare and enrichment programs that serve school-age children are faced with uncertainty about the future.

Among the organizations plunging into the uncertainty this fall is Berkeley R.I.S.E., which partners with Berkeley Unified to provide academic support, enrichment, and community for 100 students at the high school. R.I.S.E typically runs after-school tutorials and a 4-week academic boot camp for 25 ninth graders prior to the start of the school year. This year, the bootcamp has gone virtual and academic support will be housed solely on Zoom, at least for the foreseeable future. But that hasn’t stopped R.I.S.E. from supporting their students.

“Last spring, my staff was having regular group meetings with the parents and kids, since the parents are struggling, too. That’s not something we had done before,” said Adriana Betti, executive director at R.I.S.E. “The level of depression and confusion that sunk in — it was very hard to lift the kids out.”

To preserve some of the community-building essential to the success of their program, case managers and tutors have gotten creative. While there may not be any white water rafting, deep sea fishing, or junior college tour of Southern California, instructors are doing what they can to incorporate fun into the program. They open up class 30 minutes early for students who just want to chat, incorporate icebreakers into Zoom calls, and offer $10 gift cards to local shops for stellar academic effort.

While no one is sure exactly when the circumstances facing childcare, schools, and youth enrichment programs will change, one thing is certain: the pandemic has shined a light on educators of children of all ages.

For their part, Bauer and Stevenson from Aquatic Park School are taking part in a documentary that will spotlight the efforts of their teachers during the pandemic.

“We’re trying to elevate the teachers in our field by telling their stories and making the field of early childhood more visible,” Stevenson said. “The media focuses on how important early childhood education is to children’s development and how much parents rely on it. But there isn’t much about the people actually doing the work.”

Berkeley business owners are hopeful that the new value placed on educators could pave the way for a more equitable future. Mitchell presents a glimmer of hope: “There’s a lot of potential for creating structures that are more fair…We could create some positive change out of this pandemic that helps families and organizations like mine that support families.”

This story was paid for by the City of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development which helps new and established Berkeley businesses build strong connections to the community, navigate local policies, find affordable financing and real estate, and become more sustainable. OED helps entrepreneurs, artists and community organizations feel welcome in Berkeley and thrive.