Preschool Podcast
Preschool Podcast

Keeping Connected With Families During COVID-19

Episode 197 – Community is so important, now, more than ever as we face the COVID-19 pandemic. In this episode, we chat with Michele Smith, Director of the West Valley Christian Academy Preschool about how her team has adapted to connecting remotely with their families during the crisis. She shares the different things her center is doing to keep connected with families, as well as her process of adapting to the changing situation. 


Episode Transcript

Michele SMITH:

We miss our families and we cannot wait to go back. And so when our families are supporting us the way that they are financially, it just shows that there is a true partnership with our families and we couldn’t be more blessed to have them. So, we can’t wait to see them.


Michele, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Thank you!


We’re delighted to have you today, Michele. For our audience, Michele Smith is the director of West Valley Christian Academy. And we’re in a very unique time right now – we’re all managing through the stress and anxiety of COVID-19 and this global pandemic, pretty much no matter where you are in the world. And of course, in childcare and really child education, we are very impacted by this, as is everybody.

And so we have Michele on the show today to talk to her a bit about how they’re managing with this situation at West Valley Christian Academy. Let’s start off first, though, Michele, just learning a little bit about you and starting off learning about how you got into early-childhood education.


Sure. So, I’ve been in a field now for about fifteen years. I started off really working in before- and after-school childcare programs at public schools. And then after getting my early [education] degree [I] really dove into the Headstart arena for a handful of years.

And then after becoming a mom and wanting to work closer to home I took on a position of being a preschool director. And after receiving my graduate degree I’ve been doing lots of little side pieces where I’m a peer mentor for First 5 San Joaquin County out here in California and Tracy area.

And then I also speak occasionally for ACSI, which is American Christian Schools International. I also worked for Ohlone College, being in adjunct faculty for a little bit. So, I just kind of dabbled in all the areas and really from my niche as a preschool director.


Awesome. And my guess is you’re in the same boat as most preschool directors, which is you’re dealing with a very unprecedented situation right now. Can you tell us… I guess, just give us a little bit more context in terms of what situation your academy is currently in and how long you’ve been in this situation you’re currently in?


Yeah, absolutely. So, we’re at about three weeks of being closed. It went from trying to maintain those social distancing and all of the CDC guidelines to the classroom into almost overnight deciding [that] this is not practical for us. It was very difficult to maintain the level of quality that we really wanted to deliver to our families.

And then we actually started off with sending out a SurveyMonkey [online survey] to our families, trying to determine, do we even have an essential workforce of families that need the care and essentially decided from the outcome of that survey that the need wasn’t there. But the desire for early learning was.

And so early on, our families were not as informed just yet to the degree of concern that we had. And they were going to send their children to school, whether we were going to be putting out guidelines or not. They really wanted their children to come to school simply to access the learning.

So, when we made the decision to close, our connections and trying to maintain that desire of our families for children to stay learning [and] stay active, we really got busy, really fast. So, we jumped on our social media sites first, just kind of sending out links and relying on others like HiMama, for example, sending out just links to other people doing things.

But then I continue to receive emails and concerns from parents that their children missed us; they missed our faces. It was hard to adjust to not being with their teachers who they’re with anywhere from six to ten hours a day to nothing.

So, we had our very first Zoom (online video) staff meeting, which was eventful and funny and interesting. But we decided at that point, kind of, “What are we going to do?” And we developed our own YouTube channel and we just went from there, really.


Yeah, I think for all the childcare programs out there that have started using Zoom, I think we’ve all had our first initial zoom mishaps!




But you don’t learn unless you try, right? So, that’s great. And I would just also reiterate to everybody, SurveyMonkey is a great, great tool and you get a free account – there are certain restrictions, but you can mostly use it for free. And it’s a great way to get really quick feedback from your families, which is super-duper important, especially at times like this.

So, you created your own YouTube channel. That’s an interesting one. So, tell us a little bit about why you decided on doing that and what your learnings have been. What are you posting on there, for example?


So, we started off… we were really… the majority of our feedback was coming from our toddler families. We serve children from 18 months, obviously entering kindergarten. And our toddlers were the ones that were struggling the most with not seeing their teacher every day.

And so we just simply started off with Ms. Cindy, who is our beloved toddler teacher, with her own children, doing a bedtime story. She just simply read one of the children’s favorite books at bedtime, at an actual bedtime time of day. And we posted it, it was about… I think it was [an] about under-two-minute video.

And the next day, Ms. Cindy sent us a text message of one of our toddlers jumping up and down on her family’s couch, screaming head off: “Ms. Cindy, Ms. Cindy!” and pointing to her TV. And it kind of clicked for me that, “Oh my goodness, that’s right! We have smart TV’s in our living room now. They can broadcast these YouTube videos of us right there in their living rooms.” And I just thought, “Okay, let’s do this.”

We’re a diverse staff and not everybody is comfortable behind as a picture or video of themselves. I know a lot of them have been avoiding taking pictures for years. And so we’ve kind of been gathering ways to take these videos with what’s comfortable for staff.

So, for example, I have one teacher that is just not comfortable in front of the camera. And so she’s recording her children do the activities and we see her hands and hear her voice. A lot of us, actually, including myself, have done videos with our own children.

And I, being a manager, one of my things that I like to live by is, I don’t like ask my staff to do something I wouldn’t do myself. So, I made a video in my bathrobe with my glasses and ponytail on top of my head and just made a banana strawberry smoothie one morning with my son. And we’ve been using iMovie .

And because everyone does have that diverse background of various skill sets and levels of comfort behind creating these little videos that we’re doing, some staff are creating a video full and complete and sending it via email or text message, even Facebook Messenger, any which way we can get the video to me. Some staff are taking pictures or a series of pictures, a series of video clips and then e-mailing them to me and then I’m editing them.

And we’re really trying to get these videos, at least one a day, onto our YouTube. And then recently we’re also utilizing an Instagram TV [social media video app] for some of the shorter ones and then using Instagram and Facebook platforms to blast out that they’ve been uploaded so families can see them.

Some of the topics we’re covering are just basics, kind of helping families understand that the learning in the household does not have to be anything that requires materials or an expertise outside of what’s already there, that they’re the parent, they’re the best teacher, and there’s stuff all over their house that is just screaming out to them for their children to get their hands on.

And so we’ve done storytimes; like I said, making smoothies. One teacher is doing a series of bubbles – she taught the parents how to create the bubble solution, kind of create wands and then did a whole video on demonstrating and using the wands and the material that they had created in the previous videos.

So, some of these are a series like planting; some of them are just shorts. Some videos, especially young preschool and toddlers, are really about self-regulation, having children remember – we’re a simple school, so we use Tucker Turtle – how to breathe and letting the families see who Tucker is and posting follow-up resources on our social media accounts. And so really diving in all over the place.

And just yesterday I did my very first Facebook Live [online video streaming] event where we started focusing on the parenting conversation. So, initially it was all about, “How do we keep these children busy?” But it hadn’t really dawned on us that families are working from home and they might not be able to invest all day into keeping the children busy and to be able to do all these activities and that we’re really under a lot of stress right now.

And this isn’t really homeschooling, it’s a response to a traumatic event. And we’re required to be at home. And so yesterday we opened up the conversation about trauma-informed care and where our expectation levels should be and, “How do you help your child breathe?” and filling up their piggybank of positive encouragement. So, just really helping parents, too. So, we’re all over the place.

But the feedback from families has been that they are starting to incorporate our YouTube videos as part of their daily schedules, that they’re trying to attempt at home. And then yesterday, the feedback I’m getting from the parent video was, “Oh, thank you. I really needed to hear that.” It was information they knew and understood, but I think they just needed somebody else to tell them that they’re doing a good job.


Cool, a lot of amazing things to unpack there. One of the things I just want to start with is, you use the phrase, “We’re all over the place.” And I just want to be because I think that’s important because even in childcare I think oftentimes the things we do because there’s health and safety involved, there’s young children involved, children are the most important thing for their families. So, of course we want to be very careful about the things that we do.

And so oftentimes we’re very thoughtful and calculated in what we do and what we share. But this is such an unprecedented time. And so I think one of the things that’s unique about what you’re doing is you are all over the place, like you said.

But in this environment maybe that’s something that everybody has to embrace a little bit more, in terms of something that… a phrase that’s used a lot in the technology world where we live, which is “Fail quickly and learn quickly.” And it’s something that… is something you’ve thought about in terms of, “Maybe we’ll make a mistake. How are we going to… there’s so many things going on. What are parents going to think about us?” What’s your response to that?


I think… when I think about saying that we’re “all over the place”, it’s really trying to fit the needs of the families without knowing exactly what they need right now. And so really being able to offer them a variety of things to choose from, so that way they can pick and choose what’s working for them right now.

It is an unprecedented time. And there was a significant amount of anxiety when we first started this because, honestly, I’ve never created a YouTube video before. And the very first YouTube video that I made, my six-year-old daughter was videotaping me. So, I mean, the quality isn’t… the quality of the technology isn’t at this high level.

When we were kind of filtering through the decisions that we were making, [there were] a few things that we maintained. And one of the main things that we considered a lot was – and really developed as our goal – was to maintain an authentic connection to our families, even though we can’t physically be with them. And so how do we make sure that our children and families who absolutely are going through a traumatic and unprecedented event have access to the people that were a part of their everyday life?

And so at the end of the day, when it comes to the technology or the quality of the video or the goofy things that we’re doing, the goal has been and always will be, at least right now, is we just want to be present and we just want to maintain a connection. So, it doesn’t really matter to us right now how great the technology is or who’s filming it or the sound or the imaging and the mistakes.

And really, I almost welcome all of that because it shows our families that we’re not picture-Pinterest-perfect, right? Like, we’re in this with them. As a matter of fact, at the end of my Facebook Live event yesterday I took my families on a tour of my house. I’m a preschool director, they know I’ve been doing this for years. And I would imagine – and I say this because my sister assumed – that my house is in perfect order and my children are learning wonderfully and we’re doing arts and crafts and everything’s just great.

But in reality, I’ve got one, two, three baskets of laundry in my living room; I do have arts and crafts everywhere, clippings everywhere; I’ve got a bike in my living room. Just right now it’s about that human connection more than the level of quality, I think. And when I say “quality”, to me the quality is interpersonal. And the same way that we think about quality in the classroom is about teacher-child interaction, right now that’s where our focus is.


I love that. The authentic connection piece is a great sort of motto to be going by right now. And showing the vulnerability, there’s nothing more authentic, like you said, than goofing up and making mistakes. That’s what real people do. So, it’s great.

And I want to touch on that a little bit more, though, too, because you mentioned there’s some anxiety when you started this. And I’m sure a lot of people are feeling anxiety about so many things right now, including something like remote learning and recording videos and using technology they’ve never used before.

Can you talk a little bit more about that? And sort of there’s, like, this balance of… it sounds like you’ve really pushed your comfort zone and probably some of your teachers have, too. But then you’ve also balanced that with allowing [and] empowering your teachers, I might use that word, to be flexible with doing what’s comfortable for them and allowing them to choose what makes the most sense for them. How has that journey been for you and your teachers?


Yeah, so, right now, I really don’t have any specific guideline or expectation of my staff to deliver any kind of media content to me. All I’m asking for them is to find any way that will contribute to maintaining connections with their children from their classrooms.

And so some staff are super comfortable with this. They’ve got teenagers at home who have taught them and are very interested in making these videos and storytimes and infographs or whatever we’re doing. And so there’s they’re really coming through for the content. Where some of my staff are so uncomfortable with it that them just sharing an idea with me and then me bringing their idea to life is their contribution right now.

And so I really want to make sure that as long as everyone’s heart is in it and they’re trying their best, then that’s all I can really ask of them right now. For the couple of staff members that I have who are extremely uncomfortable with this environment, some of the things that they’ve done have just been to reach out to the children individually.

And some of that has been through text messaging or a short little video of themselves saying Hi or Goodnight or Good Morning and then sending it to the parent directly. So, that way it doesn’t have to be on a social media platform where it’s going to be mass-viewed. And that’s helped a lot with their comfort level.

So, we’re really stepping up for each other in a lot of different ways. So, some staff, again, they’re contributing a significant amount to where it really offers the staff who are uncomfortable to have those more intimate and private ways of connecting.

And so far, from our parents’ feedback, the parents are enjoying both. They like that we have access to YouTube and social media. But they’ve also really appreciated the interpersonal, private connections behind the things that people don’t get to see it.


Are you worried as a director about how decentralized this is, for lack of a better word, where you’re not really monitoring everything that’s happening?


Yeah, it’s uncomfortable. As a director you really want to know what’s going on all the time. And right now, I feel like over the years, in my career, certain circumstances have taken place that have contributed to building our team in the different programs that I’ve worked for.

And literally yesterday, I feel like, after we had another staff meeting, at the conclusion of that I did a check-in to kind of see, where is everybody, what have they been doing? And I was just blown away to hear what they had done in just a week’s time in contacting families, setting up their own Zoom meetings for their classrooms and just amazing. And it also required me to say, “Okay, I have to trust this right now. I’ve trusted them in the classroom. I’m going to trust them at home. They’re doing the right thing.”

Some things I am doing just so that it’s not completely blind. I want to be included. I’ve asked to be included in any Zoom meeting that they’re doing. So, I got to see some of the children myself and see how things are going with that. And then they CC [include] me on any emails. And then if there’s any parent feedback, I’m asking them to contribute that at our Zoom meetings.

And to be really honest, if the families are unhappy or not really liking what we’re doing or requesting something… if I’m going to trust them, they have to trust me in receiving that content and that it’s not going to be hits against each other. But it’s… we’re learning as we go.

And this, again, is unprecedented. And I think we all kind of accept and acknowledge that that’s kind of the world we’re living in right now. And we just have to adapt and be open to that honest feedback. And so far, we haven’t had anything negative. So, it’s been it’s been really positive.

And if anything, the children are starting to contribute. So, from this vulnerability and allowing staff to have these connections to families from their own homes that we are starting to get videos and pictures of the children trying out the things that we’re doing. And then also putting them on social media, blasting, like, when they lose a tooth. Or we’ve had a couple birthdays and the teachers have been able to call their children and sing Happy Birthday and maintain those connections.

So right now, I think, as a director, the risk of allowing staff to be independent and just distance from really my leadership and oversight, I have not been let down. I’m actually really proud of them and I feel like it’s bringing us closer together because I think vulnerability equates to trust. And then when they’re shining and the families are happy and the children are making these connections, it goes back to our initial goal. And I feel like we’re accomplishing that right now. So, it feels really good even though… it is, I mean, it’s uncomfortable as a director.


And I love, love, love that message because even before all this happened, I’m a big, big proponent of trusting our educators, empowering our educators. And that’s exactly what you’re doing. And it will be interesting to see what happens in the post-COVID-19 world to see if we do build up that trust. And once we see all the amazing things are educators can do, when we really just let them go wild and really own those relationships with the families. So, it’s awesome to hear that you’re doing that.

This has been absolutely wonderful. I love all the things that you’re doing. The variety of things, I think is a really interesting takeaway for me from this conversation. It’s like, you don’t know exactly what families want. And also families are all different and they have unique needs and schedules and situations. And so providing that variety really gives them options. Why did you decide on doing prerecorded as one of your options in addition to, like, live Facebook and Zoom, for example?


Initially we went with prerecorded because we hadn’t thought that far to go live yet, to be honest. But it did dawn on me that when I started thinking about parents and what they might be going through right now, I felt the need to go live so that they could… I didn’t want to assume what they needed to hear.

And so I felt like if I was going to go live, especially with that parental context, that wasn’t really about the kids at that point. It was about tapping into parents. I wanted to be able to hear from them. And if they had questions or content that they wanted to hear or what was going on in the home, I didn’t feel like I was going to be able to get that from something that was prerecorded.

So, really, right now, we’re navigating whether… really, the only time we’re going live at this point is to get that feedback from families and to make sure that what we’re doing is what they want to hear from us. And then the things that are prerecorded are really more the activities. It’s more tutorial-based, I think. And so, really, it’s just based off of getting and receiving information, is the determining factor of all that.


Cool, and it gives the parents flexibility with their schedule, too. I like the bedtime story recording, for example – you don’t have to know when the kiddo’s are going to sleep. You just recorded and then parents have access to it, which works for everybody.

I would love to keep going on this conversation but we’re running out of time. I do want to end on one big question that is on a lot of directors minds, which is tuition and how you’re managing the finances of the academy while your center is closed. So, that’s a little bit of real talk but I know it’s a big question on everybody’s mind.


Yeah, definitely, it’s a huge stressor. I think right now, being closed… we closed mid-March. So, we’re reimbursing 50% of March tuitions. And we’ve just decided to not ask for any tuition until we can provide a definitive return date for our families.

Being a faith-based program, we want to make sure that the families are in a position where their health and welfare come before the needs of the school. And that is a huge leap of faith. But I have our administration and our school board behind that. And I really believe in through taking those steps to just kind of have faith that it’s all going to work out.

Overnight, I received an email from our partnership with Quality Counts First 5 in our area that they’re contributing $1,000 of a grant towards our program just for trying to help out. So, I’m getting emails from families in response to our efforts, that they know that we’re not asking for tuition. But they’ve been donating towards our schools for the sustainability of our school, to maintain payroll, which we’re committed to paying our staff as much and as frequently as we possibly can in the uncertain times that we’re facing, that we do rely on our faith and we’re standing firm in it. And so far, so good. So, that’s kind of where we’re at with it.


Wow, cool. And one thing’s for sure, speaking as a parent of a toddler, is I want to make sure my childcare program is there when the dust settles, right? So, as a family, we want to support our early-childhood educators and our early-childhood education programs in our community because they are so essential. Now we realize that more than ever, as parents working from home.


Absolutely. I was actually even on a call just yesterday where the parent had asked me, “So, when are you reopening?” And I know we’re watching the same news outlets together. So, I told them, I said, “As soon as we possibly can.” And that really is the goal.

And I really want all of our families to really, really know and understand that we’re not taking this as a vacation, that I think when I told our staff, “At least for now, we’re looking at an April 20 return date,” which is seems to be a little bit [of] wishful thinking, but we had an emotional response to that.

We miss our families and we cannot wait to go back. And so when our families are supporting us the way that they are financially, it just shows that there is a true partnership with our families and we couldn’t be more blessed to have them. So, we can’t wait to see them.


Awesome. Michele, it’s been a delight having you on the show. For our listeners who maybe want to check out some of the things you’re doing, where can they go to get more information?


Absolutely. Well, you can find us at That’s West Valley Christian Academy Preschool. On there, at the bottom of our home page, is all of our YouTube, Instagram [and] Facebook links. You can also e-mail me through there, as well. There’s a big, giant picture of me and my family on there – you’re all welcome to come take a look. But it’s a great home base to be able to access all the links we talked about today.


Cool. Maybe we’ll ask for a tour of your house, as well. We’ll e-mail you. We could post it on YouTube. Cool, and speaking of YouTube, here’s a rundown of some of the various tools mentioned because we’re all trying new technology: so, SurveyMonkey to survey your parents, very useful tool; Zoom for live video calls; Facebook Live to do live sessions through Facebook if you’ve got a Facebook group; YouTube if you want to post video content; and iMovie is an Apple product to edit movies that you’ve recorded.

Michel, this has been wonderful. Thank you so, so much for taking time out of your schedule to share some of the things you’re doing during this stressful and crazy time that we’re living in, some really innovative things. And personally I love how you’re empowering your team through this and having those authentic connections with your families.


Awesome. Well, thank you so much for letting me share. Whatever we’re doing, we want enrich the entire [early-childhood education] community. So, thank you so much!


Awesome. Thanks, Michele!

Carmen Choi

Carmen is the Marketing Coordinator and Preschool Podcast Manager on the HiMama team. She's been working with childcare business owners and consultants for 3 years. She is passionate making connections that empower the ECE Community through knowledge-sharing to support better outcomes for children, their families, and society!