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Early Childhood Educators Are Essential. We Are Staying Open.

By Ann Harmon

A friend messaged me to ask me how I was coping with COVID-19. I told her that I was still working. And I’m not the only one. As an early childhood educator, I’m needed now more than ever.

Illinois’ governor has shut down public schools. Private schools are closed and so are colleges. But for many families whose kids we take care of and who don’t have the option to stay home―medical professionals, police officers, factory workers, truck drivers―we are the only option if they are to keep their job. I told my friend that if the governor orders daycare centers to close, I will open my home to these families because they need to know that I will be there even in the dark times. Especially in the dark times.

As an early childhood educator, I give the children we care for the stability they need. They see the news about the coronavirus everywhere and hear the concern in their parents’ voices. We provide the hugs, words of encouragement, and distraction these young minds need. In my classroom, we have an open discussion on what the children are afraid of, then we work on ways to overcome that fear. We talk about being healthy, practicing good hand-washing habits, using hand sanitizer when touching noses and mouths. I work on the children’s social and emotional growth as they try to get a grasp on their feelings and to understand why they feel scared all the time, and then show them the good in the world around them. In a time of crisis, I provide stability. I am the main support; there is no e-course that will give a child that same feeling of unconditional love.

In this time of crisis, early childhood educators are the anchor for many families. For many of our families, we are the game-changer if they are to keep going and do the jobs that their communities need them to do.

And so, at a time when all non-essential businesses are closed, we remain essential and open. We have now moved to essential personnel-only care. Four of our classrooms are open to 10 children and we are pared down to four rooms: a baby room and 1-year-olds in the infant room; 2- and 3-year-olds; 4-year-olds and kindergarteners; and school-age children. Each room is open from 6:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., with two permanent educators remaining with the same group of children throughout.

In the hours between 6:30 a.m. and noon, the children and I follow a typical class schedule in an environment that is anything but. There is free play, seat work, gross motor activity (limited due to restrictions on playgrounds and gym), walks, drawing on the sidewalk, and playing with bubbles. There is lunch and nap time. It is a long day for most of my children―they leave around 4 p.m.―but I try to keep them busy. And I am always cleaning, sanitizing all the toys they touch during naptime, and cleaning the handles, sinks, and toilet seats so they stay healthy. After the children leave, I do another round of cleaning of the classroom toys, and then wipe down their cubbies.

This is our new norm: clean, play, teach, clean. It allows us to be here for our children. They’ve always known that we were essential. My hope is that the rest of the world will know this too.

Ann Harmon teaches Pre-K at Caring Hands Daycare and Preschool in LaSalle, Illinois. She is a 2019–20 Teach Plus Illinois Early Childhood Educator Policy Fellow.

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