How To Adapt Your Child Care Program To COVID-19 Changes

Episode 204 – In this episode, we interview child care veteran Dennis Vicars about what it would take for child care programs to survive through the changes that come with the pandemic. Tune in to learn more about how you can be proactive and get creative when taking on the challenges that will arise as we learn how to live with COVID-19.  


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Episode Transcript

Dennis VICARS:

And that day-to-day offering to that family and that child can’t be compromised. And I think that those people who are creative and those people that can look at this in a different way are those that are going to succeed.


Dennis, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Hey, thank you very much!


We’re delighted to have on the show today Dennis Vicars. He has over 40 years of experience in education and has been through various ups and downs and many different organizations, including founding his own childcare organization, providing services to many families and children over the years, including a period of time as adviser to Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor in California.

So, we’re going to have the opportunity to pick his brain in this COVID-19 world we’re living in right now and to understand, how he’s dealt with challenges through his experience in his career. Dennis, welcome to the show. Let’s learn a little bit about you and your background. 40 years of experience is a lot. Where did you spend that time?


Yeah, thanks. And it’s great to be here and share some ideas and hopefully some things that will help people going forward. I went into early-childhood in the early 80s. I had been an education as an educator prior to that at both the high school level and then at the University of Washington.

And then [I] got some business experience in between and went into early-childhood [education] and loved it from the moment I walked into a classroom and saw little chairs and little tables and great activity going. It was especially important to me because my wife and I [were] pregnant with our first child. And I just thought, “Wow, this is just wonderful.” And it’s been wonderful ever since.

I became a district manager for what was Children’s World at the time. Later moved on to an organization now known as Nobel. Started my own company called Phoenix Schools, which is now as Cadence [Education], a nationwide organization.

From there, I ran the second largest early-childhood agency representing the providers. 14,000 providers. During that time I was put on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Committee for Advancing Quality Early-childhood in California, laying out the blueprint for the future and advised him on various matters.

And from there I ran Children’s Creative Learning Centers, which was the biggest competitor to Bright Horizons and ended up my career with three little pretty schools that were terrific. And now I try to advise people and help people and keep the ball rolling for young children.


Wonderful. And like I said earlier, you’ve been around the block, so you’ve been through some ups and downs, including recessions. What do you think is similar in advice you could take away from your experience going through recessions in the past, versus what we’re dealing with here and what might be different?


Well, you know, this is a whole different critter. I mean, when we had recessions in the early 80s and in the mid-90s and then in [2008], you had people losing jobs or fearful that they were going to lose jobs. And there was enormous withdrawal of children and many centers didn’t make it in each of those downturns.

But now this is different because we’ve not only got people losing jobs and centers closing due to that fact, but now we’re all dealing with something we’ve never had to deal with. And that’s a virus that is very, very, very lethal.

And so it is just going to be interesting going forward seeing, okay, as we are able to reopen and we are starting to get children back, what does that picture look like, number one? What does that mean? What type of regulations are the states going to now change and go to? Are you going to lower ratios? Probably. Group sizes, probably.

Be that the case, can you financially make it? Can you stay open under those circumstances? Not unlike what they’re doing with restaurants. I don’t know how the restaurants are going to make it when you can only have 25% capacity or even just 50% capacity and have a nose of if all of a sudden ratios go from, let’s say, 10-to-1 down to 5-to-1 with group separation. Besides that, how do you keep two two-year-olds from going around hugging each other?

It’s going to be… you know, I think we’re looking at a brand new canvas. And what colors are those going to be on that palette as we move along? There’s just so much uncertainty? And I think that’s the biggest difference right now, is we’ve had fear before, we’ve had job loss before, we’ve had budgets that have shrunk, especially for subsidized children. But now we’re looking at the unknown because it’s uncharted. It’s still both going to be interesting and there’s going to be very, I think, a great deal of fear on what does all this mean and what does this mean to me and in my program.


So, two-part question: First is, do you think there’s anything that we can take away from previous recessions that might apply here, even though it is a different critter, as you say? And I guess I’ll start there and I’ll give you the second part of that question after we hear from you.


Well, the success that I saw – and this is the one that’s the most recent memory for everyone, I think – is what happened between 2008 and ‘11. There were many, many preschools that didn’t make it. They had to close.

But the thing that you learned – and the ones that succeeded realized – this is not business as usual. This is now a whole different business. And the way we used to do things maybe aren’t the way we are now going to have to do things. We’re going to have to creatively think our way around this.

We’re also going to have to be really still apparent the value-add that our program brings. I mean, just because you’re saying you have a quality program, you’re going to have to prove it. You’re going to have to demonstrate how you’re different, what you’re doing sanitation-wise.

In fact, there was an acronym that I made up many, many, many years ago after going to various focus groups, cross-country, with parents. And it’s called SCOPE. And the five priorities to appear, in this order: “Is this place Safe, Clean, Organized, Professional and Educational?”

Then I think you’re going to have to make those things shine for that parent. And from your own financial end of it, you’re going to have to figure out, “Okay, how can I do this? We’re going to cut back. Where can I demonstrate at the same time that I’m still offering a quality program, a safe program, a clean program to a parent and not making compromises with those areas?”

And I saw a lot of schools that made compromises in the wrong areas. And that day-to-day offering to that family and that child can’t be compromised. And I think that those people who are creative and those people that can look at this in a different way are those that are going to succeed.


Yeah, it’s almost saying the main takeaway there is, it’s going to be different. There’s a lot we don’t know. But the one thing we do know is things are going to be different and we have to react and be, well, even more than that, be proactive about how we’re managing our programs, it sounds like.


And just let me tag on here also: I think you’re going to see more government intervention. And I know that makes most people freak. But at the same time, there’s opportunity in that, opportunity in the fact that… well, for instance, ratios change. Will there be a greater push now for universal preschool, which is going to be government… I won’t say “government run”, but certainly “government involved”?

That can be a positive if you’re a participant and if you get involved in it. And you can’t you can’t just sit around waiting to hear, “Oh, licensing is going to do this or licensing…” you better be in those committees and you better get involved. You better get involved in your local organizations, whether it be NAEYC [National Association for the Education of Young Children] or PACE or whatever organization that’s in around you because there’s going to be decisions made.

And oftentimes, we in the private sector anyhow, we have a tendency to shy away from that and say, “That doesn’t have anything to do with me.” Well, yeah, it does have something to do with you. And you’ve got people making decisions that are maybe not as well versed in early-childhood as you are or don’t always understand, “If you do X, Y is going to be the unintended consequence.”

And so I would say you’re going to have to be alert. You’re going to have to work with your local childcare organizations and you’re going to have to be involved because there are things… we do know this: it is going to change. Now, can it change to help children and help your program? Or is it going to not necessarily help children and destroy your program?

I’ve dealt with a lot of bureaucrats. And if there’s anything that I think I offered the governor of California, it was a different perspective because all he ever heard was the government perspective.


And you touched on it there, really, I think, but that was the second part of my question, which was given all the unknowns and the uncertainty and the fact that we don’t know how this is all going to play out, what can we do to plan and give ourselves comfort? And so getting involved in committees or organizations that are going to help drive the direction of this, being one good point that you made just there.


Well, I think that because there’s so much that we don’t know is that I think you’ve got to start the planning process now. “Knowing that there is going to be changes, what can I do for myself right now proactively in looking at places, knowing that all the children are not all going to come back right away? Where can I make budgetary cuts that [are] not going to harm the program? What can I do that’s going to – regardless of what the new rules are going to be or what the restrictions are going to be or the unknown is going to be – what can I do right now, presently, to help?”

Here is just an example and I know that you have had Julie Wassom, who to me is the most supreme marketer of early-childhood, probably in the world, or at least at least in the United States and Canada, is, “How can I think in ways to help a family? What can I do right now with my parent list?”

Let’s say you’re closed right now or you’re at minimum children. “What can I do to help these families survive this, to get through this? And how can I be looked upon as a helper and not as an attraction? What can I do to help these families get through this?” Through newsletters, through emails, through ideas, through your thoughts, “What can I do from a distance standpoint?”

Distance learning, almost every public school in the country is doing distance learning right now. “What can I do to help that mom at home right now that has that three- or four-year-old? How can I be looked upon as the helper, the provider, even though those children aren’t with me right now?” Parents have got to remember that. And those are some of the greatest marketing efforts you can do when this thing does completely open back up and whatever that’s going to look like or whatever that’s going to mean.


Yeah, and some of those points are a good segue to another acronym that I’ve heard you use before, which is “CARE”. Can you tell our audience a little bit about that and the importance of that?


Sure. When I first got into early-childhood, my eyes were just wide open. Everything fascinated me. I was Curious George – I wanted to know everything. And some things surprised me.

And if I may, I’ll share a short story with you: After about two or three months in the business, I was in Austin, Texas, visiting schools that were under by management. [What] kind of amazed me is how I would watch interactions and I would watch interactions with parents. And they were what, in my opinion, was not real solid. I mean, it was… “I’m here to get Johnny.” “Okay, great, take Johnny.” But there was no, among the teachers… you saw with the directors, oftentimes, but you didn’t see it with the teachers and others.

And so I started looking at the statistics. And the statistic I came up with is, 50% of the people who dis-enrolled from a center were there less than 90 days. And it occurred to me in watching what I was seeing, the interactions there in Texas that day, is there wasn’t a solid buy-in. And it just hit me is that so many parents, especially new parents, come into a center and they’re dealing with guilt. And guilt is probably the biggest, the most fearful emotion that we have.

And this was, by the way, right on the tail end of the McMartin cases. And for those of you too young to know what that was like, McMartin was the sexual child abuse situation that happened in a center in Los Angeles. And we had a very difficult time fighting insurance for a couple of years thereafter.

But at any rate, those fears that a parent has and that guilt comes from reading things like that about McMartin, or at that time having a grandmother saying, “We didn’t put your mother in a situation like this. Why aren’t you staying home with your child?” One of the very bad things that women to this day have to bear, which is unfair.

So, I started looking at this and I said to myself, “What can we do to try to make this bond more solid? And I created something called CARE, which is, “Customer Attention Retains Enrollment”. And what we did is for the first 30 days of that child’s new enrollment, we touched that parent in some way, either a telephone home, a telephone call to the home – that was before e-mail, by the way – sending a picture to their workplace where Johnny is sitting with Susie or they’re having a great time in the block area or at lunch, or some way to touch that parents.

And we told the parent that. We told the parent that “for the next 30 days, 45 days, we realize that this going to be a tough time for you. And so we’re going to touch you. We’re going to reach out to you and let you know what’s going on here. And if you have any question, we want to go out right now.”

Well, so, every day – and we had a care program that was put in, we had a care teacher who would go around at lunchtime or right before nap time take pictures, get an anecdote or whatever it was. And now it’s so much easier, like I said, because you’ve got social media, electronic media and so on. But we were able in that 30 days where something went home every day or a call went in every day. The next 15 to 20 days was like every third day.

But we were able to cut down 50% dis-enrollment the first three months to about 15% dis-enrollment. Now, you’ve got two new enrollments coming through the front door and you had to dis-enrollments going out the back door. We cut that down. And we were able to retain so many more children because we connected with that family and because we connected with that mom or that dad that were working on getting over their own guilt. And they felt more positive that they felt like, “These people really care and they’re really attending to us.”

Because what we do in this industry – and we don’t just reach out to children, we reach out to families, we take care of families. So, this worked. It was a terrific idea, I’m glad we did it. And I used it for the almost 40 years that I had schools. And it seemed to be it seemed to be very, very successful. And the feedback we got was how much that they appreciated our efforts in doing what we were doing for the family.

I used to kid with my directors, “I’ve never seen a three year old walk up to a counter and sign a check. The parent signs the check. So, you’d better be taking care of that parent as much as you can, as well as that child.”


Yeah, it’s interesting and I think very relevant for today because you could almost take this first 30 to 90 days, let’s call it, “onboarding system” for parents and reapply that as you reopen up your center coming out of COVID-19 to maintain those frequent touch points. And that peace of mind is going to be as important as ever in today’s world.


Right. Yeah, and the thing that we don’t think about is because we get so wrapped up in what we’re doing. We get so wrapped up in our classrooms or what we’re doing with children or our program. But what we don’t think about is we don’t think is, as Julie says, thinking through the perspective of your customer is that they come in in the morning between 6:30 and 8:00; they’re rushed; they’re harried; they’re trying to get off the works; oftentimes they have a car seat that they’ve got to leave at the center because dad’s going to pick up at 5:00 or whatever.

And so they leave. Somebody comes in at 5:00, 5:30, 6:00 to pick up the child. And there’s the beans on the floor; there might have been sand play; there might have been water play; the teachers gone for the day and now you’ve got an assistant and Johnny’s missing socks – “Well, where’s Johnny’s socks?”

The parent sees this at our two worst times. They miss out on the glory of 8:00 to 4:00; they missed out on seeing the program; they missed out on seeing children playing, learning, learning how to get along with each other and all the other wonderful things we do. So, they see us at our worst time.

So, they’re coming in chaos; they’re leaving in chaos. So, what’s their impression of what we do here? Chaos. And you’ve got to get them over that. You’ve got to make them see. I remember one time, it was kind of funny, kind of cute: At 5:30 I was in the school and I hear this kid screaming. And anyone that’s on this podcast knows, when you hear that scream, you’re running.

I get back – I still laugh about it – this mother is holding this child sideways, is parallel to the floor, holding on to the doorknob of his classroom, not wanting to leave. “I don’t want to go! I’m not done with my project!” And so the mom is just harried. I looked at her, I said, “Oh, another happy Phoenix School child!” And it made her laugh.

But they see us, again, when people are scrambling, as opposed to the glory of what goes on all day. And we’ve got to overcome that; we’ve got to make them feel comfortable; we’ve got explain to them why there’s beans on the floor; we’ve got to reach out and say, “One of the best things you could do is show up here at 10:00 in the morning and watch some of the most positive noise you’re ever going to hear in your life. It’s great, they’re having fun.”


It’s an interesting point. I never thought about that. But it’s kind of true that the drop-off and pick-up times hours are the most chaotic times of the day. And that’s your point of view as a parent. You would’ve thought I would have thought of that, given what we do at HiMama, but in any event.

So, you talked a bit there about customer retention. What about staff retention? So this is something else that is a little bit of a conversation that’s happening amidst the coronavirus, is, some staff or even receiving potentially benefits from the government that are in excess of their wages. So, how do we deal with this as childcare programs?


Well, that’s a tough one, as always. It goes back to, what kind of culture have you created? I mean, when you look at 65% of your cost is your labor costs, you better be put 100% of your attention on it. Directors enroll children – teachers keep children. And so, what are you doing culturally? What kind of culture have you created or you are hoping to create? Or are you hoping to continue with your people?

I mean, turnover is the bane of our business. And as we know, we see statistics sometimes that bear that out. That is horrible. You’ve got to… now, I don’t care what’s your relational or what’s your management style is, but you better have a relational situation with your staff, especially your winners.

I mean, I would do anything for my champions. If you were an assistant or you were somebody – not that you’re not important – but if I lose you, it’s not going to make a crisis within the three-year-old room. But if I lose Miss Betsy, who’s been 20 years experience, parents love her, it’s not going to be a good situation. So, I’ve had to do everything I can to make sure that person has what they need to be successful and also they feel good about what they’re doing and where they’re working. That’s something you’ve got to work on each and every day.

And I’ve had pretty good directors who I had to let go because they were great at the back office things, they were great at the books, they were great with the computer, they were great for working in the office. But you’ve got to be in those classrooms; you’ve got to be moving around; you’ve got to be encouraging teachers; you’ve got to help teachers at times.

And sometimes that means you’ve got to spend a lot of time with some people that you maybe don’t want to hear their sad story, but they’re going to tell you their sad story and you better be there with a listening ear and prepared to do everything you can to promote their wellbeing for them to be successful because you’re not going to be successful unless they’re successful.


Yeah, it’s a constant job for sure. [We are] quickly running in a time, unfortunately, Dennis. Any last words for our audience here before we wrap up?


Well, we’re in uncharted territory, as I said. I mean, as you said, I’ve got almost 40 years of experience in the business. I’ve ever seen anything like this. I’ve seen fear; I’ve seen unemployment; I’ve seen never anything that has attacked us as human beings like this has.

It’s going to be different; it’s not going to be the same, regardless; it is not going to be the same and you need to be proactively looking at ways that you can not only save but promote your program.

Oftentimes in chaos and in other things, many people are going to fail. But many other people are going to succeed. And going to really have to look at creative ways so you can succeed by doing things different, by being proactive and knowing that you’re going to have to promote things that you didn’t in the past, perhaps.

But there’s going to be winners and there’s going to be losers. And you decide which side of that equation you’re going to be on. And that means you’re going to have to look at it differently and you’re going to have to be very creative in your approaches.


Some words of wisdom from Dennis, there. Thanks, Dennis. If our audience would like to get in touch with you, maybe they’ve got some follow-up questions or maybe they want to pick your brain a bit more with all of your experience, how can they get in touch with you?


Well, my email’s the easiest way. And it’s


Wonderful. Dennis, it’s been great having you on the show. We appreciate you taking the time and for all the contributions you’ve made to early-childhood education over the years. Thanks for coming on the Preschool Podcast today!


You bet, thanks for having me. Good luck to everyone. And they keep saying we’re in this together. We really are, we are in this together. So let’s help each other!

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!

One comment

  • Barbara Rosenauer says:

    Enjoyed the podcast. Had alot of new ways of looking at things differently. Shared this with some staff members too. Thanks for your advise.