The COVID-19 pandemic posed a tricky question for several local families, particularly those whose jobs were deemed essential.
Where would they find child care after many centers shut down?
The SUNY Cortland Child Care Center became the solution for dozens of families from mid-March to mid-June.
Stephanie Fritz, director of SUNY Cortland’s Child Care Center, met with counterparts from the Cortland YWCA and the Child Development Council of Central New York to determine how to safely provide care for those in need. Since SUNY Cortland’s center cares for children from birth to age 5, it was decided that the university would be the only facility in Cortland County to host children in that age range. The YWCA cared for children age 5 and older.
While about 85% of the 83 children who are typically cared for at SUNY Cortland’s center no longer came in as their parents started to work from home, the center ultimately took on 40 children this spring, many of whom had previously gone to other centers in the county.
Going to a new child care center can be an overwhelming experience for any child. The teachers, the classmates and the setting are all new. Additionally, for safety reasons, parents were asked to drop off their children at the door, making drop-offs potentially fraught. And staff members wore masks, a barrier to germs, to be sure, but also a wall between the facial expressions that can help forge friendships with young students.
“Based on all the knowledge we have and in my more than 15 years of experience, when a child starts anything new, it takes them two weeks to acclimate,” Fritz said. “They felt safe and were good from the get-go and that was a really nice compliment to my staff and the parents. They were relaying from the children that they felt comfortable here. They all said they wouldn’t have known what to do without us here and that was something nice to hear.”
Fritz was impressed by how well her staff handled so many changes and created a calm environment amidst so much stress.
“The kids were wonderful and the parents were great,” Fritz said. “We had to change a lot of things and change how we do things. The parents couldn’t come in the building, so it was tough to drop off your child to a child care that your kid has never gone to and drop them off to strangers. Thank God we had something called the Brightwheel app, so parents had an instant messenger and they got pictures and videos.”
The center’s six preschool teachers also hosted a weekly WebEx video meeting to stay connected with the children who were no longer coming into the center but being cared for at home.
SUNY Cortland’s Child Care Center was closed for just one day ꟷ Wednesday, March 18 ꟷ and reopened the next with four children. Of the 47 child care centers in the SUNY system state-wide, Cortland’s was one of 10 to remain open throughout the pandemic.
With Central New York entering Phase IV of the state’s reopening plan on June 24, many of the children cared for at SUNY Cortland over the past few months have returned to their original child care centers. Others have returned to SUNY Cortland as their parents have stopped working remotely and gone back to work. Fritz estimates the center will be back to close to its original capacity in the fall although there will be new protocols for additional cleaning and classroom size limitations.
She remains grateful both for her staff and for the new parents who were accommodating and flexible to one another’s needs.
“Nobody was ever upset,” Fritz said. “The parents were very flexible themselves because they knew this was all so new to us too. The communication of seeing them every day at the door and saying, ‘How are you, is everything OK?’ It was a really nice community outreach even though we were isolated in our center.”
Several community partners also provided essential assistance over the past few months. The Child Development Council sent personal protective equipment and supplies. The United Way and Bill Bros. Dairy and Farm Market donated milk. The Cortland Breakfast Rotary Club gave six no-touch thermometers. Kory’s Place, a diner in Homer, N.Y., continued to provide catered lunches.
Despite all the upheavals caused by COVID-19 this spring, SUNY Cortland’s Child Care Center provided essential care to the children of essential workers.
Most of all, they made young children feel safe in the middle of a crisis they couldn’t completely comprehend.
That led to some emotional goodbyes as children headed back to their original centers in recent weeks.
“One of the little girls that transitioned over, on her last day before she left to go back to her home center, she said, ‘I have a plan,’” Fritz recalled. “She really had something to tell us. She said, ‘I’m going to have a conference with all of the teachers today and I’m going to make them sit right here. It’s my last time. I’m going to tell them thank you for keeping me safe from the coronavirus.’”
“They really kind of understood it,” Fritz continued. “We didn’t bring up the virus a lot but the parents talked to their kids, the older ones, and they really understood it.”