By Chris Harris
Many parents have a kid like 4-year-old Brianne – the explorer, the imaginative one who makes up little dramas for sticks and rocks.
“Brianne is always up at 6:15,” said her father, Sean de Courcy. “If we’re sleeping in or lying in bed, we’ll hear her: Boom, her feet hit the ground, out the door down the stairs.” He said he sometimes finds her “in the front yard checking on the tomato plants.”
Many parents find themselves in the same predicament as Brianne’s parents, Sean and Meg de Courcy, of 10th Avenue, a year after the COVID-19 pandemic changed everyone’s lives. Still, Sean and Meg must work from home doing exactly what they had been doing before, and for as many hours, but without fulltime childcare.
Brianne had been a student at Great Beginnings childcare center at the Sierra 2 Center for two years when the school’s owner and administrator, Stephanie Levenhagen, shut down March 13, 2020.
“I was scared,” Stephanie said. “I didn’t want to be responsible for making one of my staff members sick or making one of the kids sick … and taking it home to grandparents.”
So she adapted the learning activities and took the classes outdoors. “Outside, distanced, masked – I thought, ‘This is OK.’”
Stephanie cut school hours from 10 a day to four. Many students didn’t come back after Great Beginnings reopened in June. Some parents were afraid of the virus. Others simply needed all-day childcare. Stephanie finally settled on a limit of 10 kids, down from 55 before the pandemic.
“Being able to go to school for any period of time has been a lifesaver,” said Meg. “The whole point of preschool … more so than academics, is just socialization.”
Brianne and her nine friends at Great Beginnings do not fear the virus, nor do they feel put upon to wear masks or follow new rules. They want to chat and paint and run.
Sean and Meg elected to keep Brianne at Great Beginnings because of the strength of the relationships she and they had made, and because of Stephanie’s flexible way of scheduling.
In the early days after reopening, in order to keep families safe, “all the families had to commit to Great Beginnings and our group,” Meg said. There would be no socializing outside the group, and the kids would only see each other outdoors.
“Social-emotional development, conversations, reading books, singing – that’s really what preschool should be about,” Stephanie said. “The kids are calmer outside. You don’t need to have as much control, if you will.”
Lenay Franks-Brooks, the sole teacher and caregiver at Great Beginnings right now, is responsible for doing all of the things that she and Stephanie agreed on to keep the school open with the least risk.
This group of 10 kids, ages 2 to 5, might be particularly well suited to weather the pandemic. Lenay said they adapt so well because they learn actively at this age. They want to know about the “Coronavirus sickness” as one kid put it. “That’s the time to talk to them because they’re curious… so I tell them,” Lenay said. “The minute they ask that question, that’s the time.”
Being outside all of the school day, every day, has amplified that curiosity. “They pick up a rock and they’re like, ‘This is our baby,’” Meg said.
Before the pandemic, Brianne would go to school in the dark and come home in the dark during the winter months. Stephanie has agreed to more hours for preschool soon, but said, “I’m never going back to 7:30 to 5:30.”
Everyone involved has been constrained by COVID-19 – the kids, the parents and the preschool. But everyone agrees that this new way of life is better than what came before, even if only this little piece of it.
“If I could work from home every day, I would,” Meg said. There is a lot of talk about allowing employees flexible hours and more time working from home.”
All now seem to agree that time with parents should not be minimized. Before the pandemic, “sometimes even (a kid) that had been there for three years would all of a sudden just have a breakdown,” said Lenay, referring to the long hours in preschool.
Stephanie said, “I can tell the kids whose parents spend a lot of time with them – conversations, bike rides, games and things like that. Their ability to do work and think, it’s very obvious.”
Still, all agree that the balance of hours spent at home and at school is not right yet.
Everyone also agrees that Great Beginnings should be open longer. Just how long will be the next test of everyone’s power to adapt.