Episode 210 – The COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge challenge for child care providers. In this episode, we talk to Tirusha Dave, Owner & Director of Ellie’s Academy in New Jersey about her experience during the entire pandemic. She shares her experience with reduced enrollment, increased costs, and her journey since March from the start of lockdown to phase 2 of reopening.
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So, having that additional revenue coming in each week from what the state was covering definitely helped. But our ratios have been affected; our group sizes and our class sizes have been affected. So, that has definitely also counteracted on the tuition side.
Tirusha, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Thank you! Thank you so much for having me.
Of course! We always love to have early-childhood educators on our show. Tirusha Dave is an early-childhood educator and she’s also the owner and director of Ellie’s Academy in New Jersey. We are delighted to have her on the show.
And we’re going to talk to her today about being open during the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s been battling through the whole experience with having her center open. So, if you’re reopening or planning to reopen soon [or] you’ve recently reopened, you probably will learn a lot from her and her experience over the last few weeks and months.
Before we dove into that, Tirusha, let’s learn a little bit about you. Why did you get into early-childhood education and how did that happen?
Sure, absolutely. So, I’ve been working in the field of early-childhood education for a little over 10 years. I started off as a preschool teacher and fully worked my way up to being a center director, a corporate district manager for a national franchise, and then ultimately becoming an owner of my own center.
Early-childhood education isn’t originally the plan that I had in mind. I actually went to school to obtain my doctorate in pharmacy. I ended up graduating with my degree in English and journalism. And somehow a preschool job just landed in front of me one day when I was in the midst of changing careers and looking for a new job.
And I just kind of figure to myself, “Alright, it’s not what I went to school for. But I love kids; I love having the opportunity to mold young minds and whatnot.” So I thought, “Let’s take this job.” And I loved it! My friends that I was a little crazy, being a college degree holder, working at $9.50 an hour.
But it was just something that I just ultimately loved. I found the job to be so rewarding. When the kids run into your classroom, they’re like, “Ms. Tirusha!” And they give you hugs and kisses and they drew something which their parents are laughing about because it just ultimately to them is scribbles but they’re, like, “They took this time to bring you art from over the weekend.” And it’s just the best feeling.
And in in that first job as a preschool teacher, I realized that this is what I love to do and I want to do this for the rest of my life. I knew that I didn’t want to be a quote-unquote “teacher” for the whole time that I was in this career. But I definitely knew that working in the field of early ed. [early-childhood education] was something that I really loved to do.
And I spent the first year, year-and-a-half as a teacher. And my boss, who was the center director at the time, she was an amazing inspiration. Her and I are still very, very good friends. And anytime I hit a certain milestone in my career, the first person I call is her. And I’m, like, “I’m in this position because of you.” She gave me the opportunity to take on more challenges and more responsibilities and kind of [expand] my horizons outside of the classroom.
And ultimately, it kind of led to me being her indirect assistant director and taking over the center when she used to go for conferences or she had time off and things like that. So, that was really a huge stepping stone for me.
And then it kind of just went from there. I eventually left that position to take on a job as a center director. And then I stayed as the center director for several years. Then I got an opportunity when I worked as a director for a corporate franchise to then ultimately become a district manager for them where I oversaw several locations, managed their budgets and their financials.
And then I was like, “Okay, I really have a grasp on this. And it’s time for me to really do something for myself.” And then that’s when I decided to kind of open up my own school, in a nutshell.
Cool! I’m glad I asked the question. It’s quite a unique background that we don’t hear very often!
Yeah, it really is!
And the other thing that I think is great that you brought up is that you had someone who was, like you said, an inspiration and who gave you those challenges and those opportunities. I think that’s really important. And something for our listeners to take away in terms of either looking for that role model or being that role model or inspiration for people that are working with you or for you, because I agree that’s always a really important part of people’s journeys in their careers.
And that’s something that I really try to mimic – especially in a leadership role now – is she inspired me so much to be more than just a classroom teacher. And that’s why I say ultimately I am in the position that I am today, is because she gave me that opportunity to do so.
So, having now been in a leadership role for several years, I try to mold my staff, especially if they have the desire or they have that x-factor or a sense of accomplishment, accountability. And it really allows them to do more and be part of the center on an entirely different level, not just within the classroom as a teacher.
I mean, I’ve had conversations in the year-and-a-half [that] I’ve been here at Ellie’s Academy with some of my staff. And ultimately it’s now, one of my teachers has now decided to pursue her bachelors degree. Before she had just recently graduated with her associates [degree].
And after kind of talking about my journey and how I got to where I am today, she’s, like, “I really want to continue going back to school now.” She’s, like, “I think being more than a teacher might ultimately be in the cards for me.” And I think that’s great because now I feel like I have the opportunity to do for somebody which was done for me.
Awesome! And something I want to touch on a little bit more to before we get in to the COVID-19 experience is your transition to an owner specifically because I think it’s something that likely some early-childhood educators or teachers out there are thinking about but don’t necessarily know how to take that leap or what you would even have to do or think about to do that.
So, it might be interesting this year, just in terms of your experience, when you knew you wanted to own your own center, like, what did you do? How do you go about going from [being] a non-owner to an owner?
When my husband and I decided that [it was] time for me to open up my own childcare center, I think the first thing that we really had to sit down and look at were the finances because the biggest difference from going as a salaried employee such as a center director to going to an owner is the fact that you may not necessarily have that steady salary coming in every month.
Because when you are an owner of your own school, the first, second, maybe even the first three years of your initial business plan, you may not be providing yourself with a salary. So, we really had to make sure that, given my husband’s full time job, we would still be able to sustain our home and the daily expenses that we would have.
The next thing we really had to do was find a location. We live in a certain part of New Jersey. Where we live, there’s not a huge demand for childcare centers. So, obviously opening one up in our hometown would not have been probably the most ideal of situations. So, for us, location was really important. My husband works about an hour north of where we live and I’ve always traveled for work. So, for me, being on the road for 30, 40, 45 minutes was not a big deal.
But we wanted to make sure that we found a location that was really central. And when I say “central”, I mean easy for parents to access, near a lot of child-centered businesses or activities and things that we could do because we know ultimately that the traffic would have been there.
So, it took us about a good year to find the location that we had now. And ultimately, we linked up with a broker who works with a lot of childcare centers in New Jersey where people want to buy and sell and kind of told him what exactly it was that we were looking for. And we just found this place.
And it was a smaller center. I always dreamt of having my first center being a beautiful 10,000 square foot building with huge windows and huge playgrounds and sitting on its own property. But you have to be realistic as well because to buy a 10,000 square foot center, there is there’s a lot more expenses that go with that. And we wanted to make sure that, again, it was a realistic decision that we were doing.
So, the building that we found, it was prior as a childcare center and it was licensed for 70 kids. And we just fell in love with it. It was this cute little building with a nice little playground. And we were, like, “This is great starter center.”
Just like when you buy your first home as a newly married couple, you’re not going for, like, the big mansion. Ultimately that will come in the future if you play your cards right. And we just thought that this was perfect or [the] two of us. And that’s kind of how I went from my past as a center director to becoming an owner.
Cool, very interesting. Thanks for sharing that. I know it’s something, as somebody who started my own business as well, it was always challenging for me to think through how you go about it. And I know I finally got there. So, it’s great to hear a story from you from the childcare perspective.
Now, let’s transition over to the COVID-19 discussion. So, you’ve been open through the whole thing. Let’s start off learning about why you decided to do that.
So, when we started to hear a little bit more about COVID  in New Jersey, it was probably the start of March, I would say – a little bit into the first or second week of March. And it was starting to become… not an issue, but it was becoming more predominant in New Jersey. You started hearing a lot more about it; you started hearing certain businesses were starting to close. People were slowly starting to not go into work.
And you really felt it because when I was driving to work every day, I [was], like, “Wow, I’m getting here a lot sooner than sitting in traffic!” And there are a lot of less people that were on the road by the middle of March.
And I would say, pre-COVID, by the second or the last week of March, we were down to 8 to 10 kids in the building because people just stopped coming in. They were either working from home or they were too worried and they were not taking their children out or they just ultimately weren’t leaving their homes.
So, we started talking, the staff and I, and were, like, “Alright, what is going on here? What’s going to happen?” There was no real news put out about childcare centers or what we were supposed to do in March. So, we continued to stay open.
And by that time, we were kind of only taking care of quote-unquote “essential” or “front line” parents’ children. We have a few parents that are police officers, or they work as nurses or pharmacists, in the school already. So, they were kind of the only ones who were bringing their kids at that point because they were still going into work until things were changing as of April.
And I talked to my staff and I said, “Listen, the last thing I want to do is close our doors to the parents because obviously people have to go into work. If we’re not open, where are they going to send their kids?” And on the flip side of the coin, I wanted to make sure that we kept our doors open because if we closed, my staff wouldn’t get paid because there would be no children coming in, no tuition coming in.
So, I wanted to make sure that we were able to take care of the kids and ultimately keep my staff whole. And mind you, at this point – by the middle of March, end of March – there’s no talks about PPP’s [paycheck protection programs] or SBA [small business administration] loans or nothing.
So, my biggest thing was, “I have to keep the doors open because I have to pay my staff; I have to keep them whole.” Because let’s be honest, the teachers, they depend on their paychecks. They’re using their paychecks to keep their houses whole. And if they stop getting a steady income, it puts them in jeopardy, too.
So, I was really fighting for the kids and the staff at this point. And my husband and I, we talked about a lot. And I told him, “I’m going to do everything and anything I can to keep our doors open.”
Towards the end of March – probably the 27th, 28th, I don’t remember, to be exact – [New Jersey] Governor [Phil] Murphy had his afternoon address to the state. And he basically said that any childcare center who wants to remain open after April 1st would have to apply and be approved to stay open. And if we were approved, we could only take care of front line parents or essential parents that were based on the executive orders that he had put out previously.
We got the website, we got the information to apply, and we submitted our application right away. And then by Monday of the following week, we were approved; we received our emergency license. And I’m like, “Great, what are we going to do? Because we still only have eight kids in the building.”
Then the state rolled out this program, it was called the Emergency Childcare Assistance Program – ECAP for short. And what the state did is, for any frontline or essential parent who requires childcare, they were actually funding the weekly tuition for the child.
So, it’s great to hear that the state of New Jersey stepped in with some funding for families there. I know that’s a big topic of conversation, obviously. And so nice that that was helping you out, helping the families out.
And I know you referred earlier [how] you said you were down to 8 to 10 kids. For our listeners, maybe you can give us a sense of a little bit more about your center, Ellie’s Academy. Like, what’s your normal capacity, age groups and that sort of thing?
Absolutely. So, as I said before, our center is licensed for 70 [children]. Pre-COVID, we were at about probably 42 or 45 kids in the center. By the end of March, like I said, we were down to 8 to 10. And then during the entire COVID-19 pandemic in New Jersey, we actually had about 38 to 40 kids in the building.
So because the state actually rolled out the Emergency Childcare Assistance Program where they were funding the tuition, we actually got a lot of inquiries from parents who were considered front line and essential. And they were looking for immediate childcare because either their center closed or their center never applied to stay open. So, we had to quickly turn around and be able to house these children.
The other kind of problem that we were facing is, pre-COVID, there were 9 staff in the building, including myself. During the first months of COVID – I would say for the month of April – we were working on 5 teachers, including myself.
But one of the things that really changed was our ratios and the classroom sizes. One of the things that the state had said while we were taking care of the essential and front line parents’ children was our group sizes actually went down to 10. So, we weren’t allowed to have more than 9 children in a classroom, plus one additional teacher.
Now that we’re in Phase 2 of reopening businesses and all of the childcare centers have now been able to have the opportunity to open up as of June 15th, they’ve actually upped our class sizes to 10 with no more than 2 teachers in the building, which is nice because we were able to bring back one or two more kids because some parents who were with us during this time of the Emergency Childcare Program, they went back to their original centers because they opened up. So, it was a good opportunity for them. And then we were able to bring back some of our families, which was nice.
Interesting. And it’s great to hear firsthand how that ECAP funding works, basically. Like you said, as soon as it was announced, you had families coming to you who were interested.
So, one of the big conversations that’s happening right now for a lot of childcare programs is the financial balancing of being in a situation where a lot of programs have increased costs because of new requirements for ratios or health and safety requirements due to COVID-19, while also having lower revenue because enrollment’s down for a lot of reasons. How are you managing to balance those issues, financially?
It’s not an easy thing, that’s the simplest answer that I can give you. Obviously, staying open was going to be a financial risk because we didn’t know, of course, that they were going to have the Emergency Childcare Assistance Program. Because of that, obviously, we were able to push through because we still hadn’t heard back in regards to the PPP or the SBA loans being approved. So, having that additional revenue coming in each week from what the state was covering definitely helped.
But as you had said, our ratios have been affected; our group sizes, our class sizes have been affected. So, that has definitely also counteracted on the tuition side. And because we have different rules and safety precautions that we have to follow here in New Jersey – as well as some other states that I’m hearing on different forums – our costs in regards to payroll have gone up as well.
One of the things that we have to do here in the state of New Jersey is, the same teacher has to stay with the same group for the entire day. So, you basically have one of three options: You either go into just an eight-hour operating window for your center – which, I heard, some centers did ultimately change to do.
Option two is, you eat the overtime when it comes to your payroll so that you’re keeping the same teacher the entire day with the same group of kids. Or [option] three: You have to find somebody who’s going to be able to work a split shift or come in just for a few hours every day and be the consistent person to close out a classroom so that your primary teacher goes home.
Obviously, cutting our hours, from a business perspective, would not have been a good idea because our parents need our care. And right now, we provide care from 7:00 AM until 6:00 PM. So, if we were to go from a 9:00 to 5:00 or an 8:00 to 4:00, it would not have been feasible for our parents.
Eating the overtime would not have been an ideal situation as well, because ultimately you’re paying more in payroll and you’re burning out your staff at the end of the day. So, we also didn’t want them to be tired and burnt out and just, at the end of the day, not wanting to come in. We want them to still feel happy and pleasant and enjoying the work that they do, given the situation that we’re in right now.
So, for us, what we had to do is, we actually had to hire a few new teachers who would come in starting the afternoon, basically [to] allow this teacher – let’s say it’s the lead preschool teacher – so, they would allow the lead preschool teacher to go on their lunch break and then they would ultimately stay with that group of children until the teacher goes home and then close out the building at the end of the day. Because now the state of New Jersey does not want us – and they have not wanted us, throughout this entire time – to commingle the children.
So, typically, a childcare center, when teachers go home, you would combine classrooms to maintain ratios and allow people to go home. Now, we’re not doing that. So, all five of my classrooms are open from 7:00 to 6:00. But there are people that come in at staggered times that are now consistent to close out those classrooms at the end of the day. So, because of that, obviously, there’s been an increase of payroll, as well, payroll costs.
And to talk about the second thing you mentioned, the health and safety regulations: I mean, having a childcare center in general, you’re always buying bleach and wipes and sanitizing products and things like that. But because of the situation that we’re in now, I think we’re doing four times more of the cleaning that we would typically do throughout the day.
So, we actually did a calculation: what we spent in a calendar year for 2019 on cleaning products – and so when I say cleaning products, I mean Lysol [brand] wipes, everything that you would use to clean and sanitize a childcare center – we basically spent in almost the first quarter and a half of 2020.
Challenging, it’s a challenge, it sounds like. It was really helpful, though, I think at least for me, to hear you lay out sort of those three options of how you would deal with that situation. Because I think no matter what state or province or place you’re in, a lot of childcare programs are under the similar requirements to that.
So, it’s interesting how you dealt with that. And then what about from families’ perspectives? What has changed in terms of how you’re working with families at this time? Any tips or thoughts there?
I think the biggest thing we did with our parents is we were proactive and we over-communicated a lot of things to our families. As soon as something would come in through my inbox from my licenser I would read it; I would break it down; I would digest it; I would make sure the staff understand it.
And then from that, I would always take all of the important points that affected the children. And I put that out in a document to the parents. And what I would do is I would bullet-point everything. And I would tell the parents, “Please read, acknowledge and initial next to each bullet point and sign the bottom saying that you understand what’s going to happen.”
So, for example, the first time the state sent us out communication, it said that parents, for example, are no longer going to be able to drop their child off in the classroom. Now, put yourself in the shoes of a two-and-a-half-year-old who has a daily routine everyday with their mom, their dad or whomever it is that’s dropping them off to come into the school, come into the vestibule, walk past my desk and go down to the classroom with their parent where they have that final goodbye hug, “See you later,” that whole engagement opportunity.
Now, all of a sudden, you’re telling parents that they have to drop their child off in the front vestibule. And I have to now physically take the child back to the classroom. All of a sudden, it’s a huge change in routine and consistency for the child.
So, what we did is, we sent out all of those informations and notes to the parents and we said, “This is what we’re going to do moving forward. Start talking about it to your child at home when you’re having dinner. Say, Okay, tomorrow Daddy’s going go drop you off at school and Ms. Tirusha’s going to meet you at the front door and she’s going to walk you down to Miss Connie’s classroom.”
And at first, I really, really thought that this was going to be one of those stomach-twisters and it was going to be so hard because children were going be crying and hysterical because, again, consistency and routine is so important. When it came to that Monday morning and the first couple of kids came in, they just looked at their parents and were, like, “Bye, Mom!” They stood there while I took their temperature check and they were perfectly awesome.
And I don’t know if somebody is just looking down on us and making sure that we had an easy time doing this but the children had so much fun in it. They thought it was great that they were coming in, meeting me, getting their temperature taken and then going down to the classroom.
And I think the biggest thing is, we tried to make it fun for the kids. Every day I have to ask parents the same questions: “Have you administered fever medication? Are the children showing symptoms of COVID? Does anybody in the house have symptoms of COVID? The state gave us these several questions that we have to ask.”
And every day it gets monotonous and tedious for the parents. But they’re answering, “No, no, no.” They’re answering all the questions honestly. So, sometimes I’ll talk to a child and be, like, “Did you take any medicine today?” And then they look at their parents and they look at me and they’re, like, “No.” And the parents behind them say, “No, they didn’t take anything.”
And I think that just changes the mood and it changes the tone and the setting for that whole initial drop-off time. And sometimes they’re, like, “Ooh, what’s my temperature? Am I healthy?” And now they find it fun. Now it’s become a new routine. Now I’m, like, “Alright, when things go back to normal and they have to go to their classroom, is it going to be a change for them again?”
But I think it was all about how we broke down the material to the parents, how we explained. We put signage everywhere as soon as things became more prominent with social distancing. We put cones out six feet apart one another, asking the parents to wait and things like that.
And they’ve just been really, really good about it. The parents at first, I’m sure it’s a little nerve wracking. They’re dropping off their child in the lobby and not walking them down to the classroom. But I think it’s that trust that we felt with the parents where they don’t hesitate about it. And I think that’s what it comes down to, is trust and communication.
Yeah, that’s some really good, practical advice for our listeners there. And I was on a podcast not too long ago and I was also saying around what’s one of the most important things right now. And I said, “Communication, communication, communication.” And you called that “over-communication” so I think we’re on the same page there, it’s so important.
And I would think probably a large part of why your transition went as smoothly as it did was because of that, for sure. And so if there’s anything you take away from today, definitely the communication piece is so important. Last but not least, any words of encouragement for our listeners out there? It’s a tough time, lots of things we’re dealing with.
As cliché as it may sound, the other centers, the other directors and the owners, you guys aren’t the only ones. You’re not struggling through these times alone. You’re not going through questions and concerns and issues on your own. There are so many people that are trying to figure things out right now.
And I think the biggest thing is that we’re there to support one another. I know I personally am part of a couple of preschool owner and director Facebook groups. And I put on there, “These are the things that I’m doing.” And then I’ll have somebody from another state comment like, “Wow, that’s a really good thing to implement! How did you go about doing it?”
And I think we just need to share our thoughts, our resources with one another and just leverage the support that we can find from other center directors. I had a director who’s from the next town over. And technically people would look at it as, “Oh, it’s a competing center.”
And she’s, like, “Tirusha, I know you’ve been doing like some news interviews and you’ve been talking about things that you’re doing. Can you explain to me how you implemented this particular process? Because I know I read that you guys did it.”
And I’m, like, “Sure, absolutely!” Because why am I going to hold onto that information when I can make a process so much easier for another center when they’re thinking they’re struggling with something?
So, we’re all in this together. I think if you’re just opening up and you know that a couple of centers in or near you have been, ask them how the process has been for them. How have they communicated their regulations or certain rules to their parents and to their staff to make sure that it’s an easy process and that people don’t think, “Oh, god, this is one more thing that’s changing or another thing we have to add to our list of things to do with our teacher”? Just leverage the people around you.
And one of the other really great things that I do is, I have a great relationship with our state licenser. So, anytime I have a question or maybe an idea about something I want to implement during this entire COVID situation, I’ve always reached out to her. And if she wasn’t able to provide me with an answer – which was very rare – she’d definitely pointed me in the right direction of somebody that I can ask to and kind of get the right advice or the right insight from.
So, ultimately, again, here it comes down to communication again. I think centers just need to leverage the resources around them. There are plenty of organizations that are giving grants right now for health and safety aspects. I know in the state of New Jersey right now, they’ve put out a rolling grant of $5,000 right now for every licensed childcare center where they use it towards health and safety and the sanitizing of the center. And I think that’s great because right now, given this situation, because if you’re feeling it, I’m sure somebody else is feeling the same thing, too.
Yep, great advice, awesome! Tirusha, if our listeners want to reach out to you to get more information, where’s the best place for them to go?
Yeah, absolutely! We’re on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Everything is [forward] slash Ellie’s Academy [/ElliesAcademy]. And our website is www.ElliesAcademy.com, too. And like I said earlier, if you guys are in the process of reopening or you’re thinking of reopening and you’ve got questions, I may not be in the same state as you or the same province but don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I’d be more than happy to walk you through what it is that we’ve been doing and answer any questions that you guys may have.
Awesome, [we] appreciate your openness there. In line with your own advice around collaborating with others, like you said, we’re all going through this together. And thanks for the practical tips and really great stuff in there. Tirusha, thank you for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today! Awesome having you on.
Absolutely! Thank you so much for having me again.