Episode 198 – The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly challenging for the childcare industry. In this episode, KinderCare’s Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Elanna Yalow shares how Kindercare is navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. We cover everything from safety procedures for locations that are still open at this time, to maintaining connections with families for closed locaations, as well as what the “new normal” might look like for the industry after lockdown is lifted.
KinderCare’s social media:
What we do is vital – it’s vital to our country and it’s vital to every child and family we have the opportunity to touch. And we will get through this; we will have an opportunity to continue to serve those who need us most.
Elanna, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
It’s so great to be with you, Ron. Hope you’re doing well!
Yep, we’re doing as good as can be during these challenging times. Certainly it’s helpful for me and for the early-childhood education community to talk to folks like you to learn about what’s going on right now and to get advice from peers and to learn how organizations like KinderCare are managing through COVID-19.
And when I introduced to you, I should’ve said, “Welcome back,” because this is actually the second time that we’ve had Dr. Elanna Yalow on the Preschool Podcast. So, we’re delighted to have you back and to talk about what we’re all dealing with right now, which is the impact of COVID-19.
Let’s start off by talking maybe a bit more broadly as chief academic officer of KinderCare – a large childcare organization that is probably pretty connected into both the early-childhood education community, as well as organizations within maybe the federal or state governments to learn about maybe what you know that we might not know as a HiMama software company or a smaller childcare organization in terms of COVID-19 and what you’re seeing in the world of childcare and early-childhood education.
So, I’m not sure we have any particularly special insight into it. I think as everybody probably realizes, the entire sort of childcare industry is in a position where we are absolutely… and the interesting thing is we are now, I think, moreso than ever being recognized as an essential service for the nation in terms of our ability to support not only healthcare providers and first responders, but all the many workers who are part of the essential services supply chain.
And so many people, others might not have thought about [us] as being essential to supporting our country. But now everybody realizes the incredible value of all those workers – and so much of childcare – and enabling them to continue to support all of us. But it’s been fairly devastating for the childcare industry in general, early-childhood education. We are doing the very best we can to continue to support those who need us most.
At the same time our high priority is to make sure that for those centers that remain open – I can talk a little bit more about what we’ve seen across the industry landscape – but for those greatly reduced centers that remain open to make sure that we are doing all that we can to protect our children and our families and most importantly, or equally importantly, our incredibly brave teachers and center staff who really come to the front lines every single day to keep up our nation in whatever progress they can continue to make through this incredible crisis.
So, I’m curious to learn a little bit more about those centers that are open because a lot of the folks that we’ve talked to on the Podcast so far since this has hit are closed. And so we’ve talked about how they’re dealing with that, with their families and their teachers and as a business. But how about the centers that are open? How is that working operationally to support those families that are maybe in emergency or critical services?
Challenging. And it was interesting, when the COVID-19 crisis first began we were trying to keep as many centers open as we could to support our families. But just in a matter of days, two things became clear: One is, we couldn’t – probably most importantly – we couldn’t do a good job across all of the centers that we operate. I think, as you know, we operate about 1500 early childcare centers.
And so we couldn’t do a good job, even in trying to. And then that our families were increasingly starting to work from home or understanding that it might not be the right environment for their children, even before we really understood the way this horrible virus spread.
But we quickly made a decision to reduce significantly the number of centers that we were operating to just focus on those that were within a very small geography of healthcare facilities so that we continue to support those critical workers. And also it gave us an opportunity to make sure that in those centers that we did keep open, that we had the right materials to do everything we could to protect our teachers, our children and the families, understanding that where we would be serving families, we would be serving families that were critical to our nation – most significantly, healthcare providers – and making sure that we were doing all we can to live at the highest standards of health and safety within our programs.
So, it was a very quick transition that we made and it was absolutely the right decision. Again, doing an analysis of where our centers were located and making sure that we could serve those that families in very, very safe conditions, although that has changed over the course of the past few weeks, that we continue to kind of up the standards as we learn more and more about the virus and how it spreads. But definitely [we] knew that we needed to make sure that any child, family or certainly teacher that was brave enough to come in to support an essential need was being provided with the safest environment possible.
And certainly one of the words that we’re hearing a lot – and I’m using a lot, at this time – is “unprecedented”. And surely in a lot of ways this is unprecedented for KinderCare, as well as the childcare community at large. And it’s required a lot of using words like “flexibility, adaptability, agility”. Have you and has KinderCare been able to respond in that adaptable and quick way? Like, how have you been able to manage that, especially when you’re such a large organization? And maybe any learnings from that for other listeners out there that have had to change really quickly and might be providing these essential childcare services right now?
Yeah, I think we are very fortunate. And I think because of our culture and the strong commitment that we have to all of our stakeholders and also because of our size, it gave us some resources to make sure that we were sort of covering all bases when it came to making sure that any center that remained open could meet the highest standards of health and safety possible. So, we were pretty agile.
And I’d say in a couple of days we made the decision, we did the analytics to see where the highest concentrations of first responders and healthcare workers [were] so that we knew which centers we would target to stay open and then work with our field to confirm that that we’d selected the right locations and in very short order put together a comprehensive training program for those teachers and center administrators that would be continuing to serve in what we were calling “essential centers”.
So, [we] pulled back together in very short order. And that included a very intensive overview of the new health and safety practices that we would be putting in place to screen anybody who would enter the center, as well as making sure that the facility itself had deep cleanings and the new kinds of supplies and materials that were needed to support the ongoing operations of the center.
We also made the decision to enhance the administrative staff at each of the essential centers so that in addition to a center director who is responsible for as-close-to-traditional operations as possible we placed another center director who is our health and safety director, whose sole responsibility would be to ensure that the high standards of health and safety practices were in place in each of the locations.
And the training involved, obviously how to do health screenings upon entry, we made the decision even before it was sort of universally required. I think we got ahead of the game to ensure that there were the right kind of social distancing practices, which included limiting ratios significantly, probably to about half of what they might be or might have been before; limiting group sizes; keeping staff and children as consistent as possible so that they were with the same group across days.
Looking at things that people might not think about, like to support social distancing in terms of drop-off; being prepared to stagger drop-off times so that families who are now going through health screenings for their children didn’t have to wait to go through that process; so, putting time limits about when families will be coming to the center to avoid any kind of mass gathering or congregation.
Looking at things like building personal hygiene into the daily routines of the children – it was always part of what we did but obviously with a much higher level of intensity and focus; things like looking at activities differently so that we could practice social distancing, even in the activities in the classroom; or changing the way children were sleeping so that cots were appropriately distanced from each other.
So, we had a very comprehensive training, as well as, I think, the resources to support a different sort of program implementation than we had ever really conceived of before.
And so we’re all trying to think of positive things during this really challenging and stressful and anxious time. Would you say that there are some positives here in terms of learnings that KinderCare is going to take out of all of this and can apply after the dust settles on all of this?
Yes, there’s a couple – there’s actually many, many things. First, the way the community has come together is so powerful. And I think not only KinderCare, but any early-childhood provider, is an important part of the community they’re in and creates a very special community for their families. I think that has only been intensified.
And the appreciation that our families who are with us have for the work that our – again, we call them our “superheroes” – but that our teachers are doing every day. And conversely, the incredible appreciation. Our teachers are coming to work to help people [to] help others. So, I think the dramatically enhanced sense of community over what was already a very strong sense of community, not unique to KinderCare, but is something that is incredibly, incredibly powerful.
And obviously some of the enhanced health and safety practices that have now become so routine, I think our entire country understands that we probably forever – but certainly for a long time – have to think differently about how we protect and ensure the health and safety of everybody who is around us. And so I think that that intensity in some of the practices will translate.
You know, I have spent a lot of time talking about the things we did in our centers. But I think another really important effort that we did, understanding that most of our centers would be closing, is how to continue to create a sense of community with our families who we’re no longer attending during this crisis period.
And so we took our core curriculum and have kind of a skeleton crew of our education team now who is rapidly working to provide new resources to our families at home. So, not just to provide sort of general guidance but actually lifting activities that the children be experiencing in the classroom around the themes that they would have been working on when they had to stop attending.
And on a weekly basis we’re providing content to our families so that they can continue the experience of our children in their homes and give them a little bit of relief and guidance about how to structure the day and some activities that, again, provide consistency and continuity for the children that were in our centers.
Interestingly, we’ve had such an outpouring of support for that, for those efforts, and it’s available on our website. So, anybody, any family member, any parent, should feel free to reach out and use those resources. Again, it’s kind of customized around the KinderCare experience but absolutely equally applicable to any adult who’s trying to support both their work life and their new parenting requirements or is just looking for some great new activities to share with their children.
Awesome. Yep, I know what that’s all about!
Yeah, you do! You’re totally in that demographic. And I would say, there’s just been some other really heartwarming stories, like a child who was going to have a birthday party in the center but obviously couldn’t. And our staff from the center got in their cars and did a parade in front of that child’s house with banners out, wishing their child a happy birthday.
Those kinds of just community and heartfelt outpourings of support just make me so, so proud to be a part of a team that is so dedicated and so compassionate to children and families and the struggles that we are collectively going through now and give so selflessly of themselves to support each other.
Yeah, the point about just the community and people coming together during this challenging time is certainly something that resonates and something we’ve been hearing on the Podcast from other guests, too. And it’s challenging times like this where it’s also you see such hope and encouragement in the way that we react as people to a situation like this, which is great to hear.
One of the things I just wanted to point out to our listeners that I took away there from a practical standpoint is, I would anticipate when the dust starts to settle on all of this that there’s going to be some longer tail of health and safety requirements or recommendations or guidelines when it comes to things like hygiene and social distancing. So, something just to think about for our audience there, in terms of what happens when you open up again and things you might be doing a bit differently. So, I think some good takeaways there.
One of the things I wanted to touch on before we run out of time: you mentioned our increased appreciation for early-childhood educators and early-childhood education at large – our teachers specifically – is something that I think is coming out of all of this. What do you think about the early-childhood education community and bouncing back from this and coming out of this? Do you think it’s going to be different in terms of [how] we know – we all know – that there’s been a general lack of appreciation for the amazing work that early-childhood educators do. Do you think maybe this will put a different perspective on things?
I’d say I’m very hopeful. I guess I have to say, I’ve been hopeful before, though. This is obviously so much more profound in terms of its impact and I think so much more widespread in terms of clear visibility that without early-childhood educators and childcare in general, that essential workers would not be able to continue to provide services that are so critical at this time.
So, I hope that message resonates and just rings even more powerfully than it ever has before. I certainly think that impacted families recognize it. I do think, to the point you kind of made in framing the question, it’s really important to know that the light switch is not just going to go on and all of a sudden things either will or should go back to the way they were before, whether it’s an appreciation of the importance of early-childhood educators and the important work they do or even the way we operate programs.
And I think understanding that there could be a long road to even financial recovery for many centers to be able to reopen, they’re going to have to do in some cases re-recruit and, at a minimum, retrain their teachers on some of the new best practices that may have come from this time.
We’re certainly going to provide different kinds of training during a transition period. These children, many of the children will have not been in programs for an extended period of time. And how we reintroduce them to that environment is going to take a slightly different approach than maybe we had previously where children were kind of more seamlessly integrated into existing programs.
So, we’re all going to have to work really hard to think about what it’s going to take to support bringing back our staff, making sure that they are well-trained and supported in sort of a new “normal” and that we have an opportunity for what could be an extended transition period for children and families back into the centers over time.
So, I think we are so eager to get back to something that sounds like business as usual but we may never get back to where we were or necessarily should be. But there definitely needs to be a recognition that it will take a somewhat significant transition period, both for families as well as for the centers themselves.
Yeah, those are good points. We’re quickly running out of time. I did want to give you the opportunity, though, to speak to any other advice you might have for the early-childhood education community out there. I know a lot of folks are struggling. It’s a stressful time; it’s really difficult for everybody out there right now. Any words of wisdom for our listeners out there?
I wish I had great words of either wisdom or comfort. All I can do is remind everybody who is in support of children and families to continue to hang on to the reason they made those choices about their life’s passion and their life’s energy.
What we do is vital. It’s vital to our country and it’s vital to every child and family we have the opportunity to touch. And we will get through this; we will have an opportunity to continue to serve those who need most. And hopefully the rest of the nation will be even more inspired by the importance of the work we do and how critical we are, not just to our nation’s economy but to every single child and family who’s part of our great country.
Absolutely. Dr. Elanna Yalow, always a pleasure to have you on the show to share your knowledge. And your authenticity is always very appreciated [as well as] the knowledge that you share with us on the Preschool Podcast. And I know it’s a busy time, so I appreciate you taking time out of your schedule to join us on the Preschool Podcast today.
Ron, thanks so much. And thanks so much to your listeners for their courage and their great work and their inspiration!