The playground at Chautauqua Elementary School (Tom Hughes Photo).

The playground at Chautauqua Elementary School (Tom Hughes Photo).

Island child care providers prepare for uncertain fall

Despite risks, waitlists are long for available slots.

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series about island child care in the era of COVID-19.

Washington’s schools can’t reopen safely for in-person learning without reducing COVID-19 infection rates, according to a report by the Seattle-based Institute for Disease Modeling and the state Department of Health released last week.

Until public health officials are confident that Washington has gotten ahead of COVID-19, students will likely remain out of class. Health officials say that’s for good reason: The study warns that unless school administrators wait for case counts to drop, bringing students back for in-person instruction will lead to thousands of new infections.

Once infection rates statewide trend downward and stay there, schools should implement in-class health and safety measures upon reopening, including mask-wearing, social distancing as much as possible and ventilating buildings for inside instruction, according to the report, which urges schools to regularly screen students and staff for symptoms and use a hybrid schedule to minimize the virus’ spread.

If all recommendations are followed, in-person instruction likely wouldn’t increase community transmission of the virus — but crucially, bringing students back in any capacity will inevitably lead to new infections, the report concludes.

With brick and mortar school buildings closed for the foreseeable future to ward against the inherent risk in reopening, many of the island’s child care providers say they will take the lead to fill the gap and open their doors in accordance with recommendations from the department of health. Several have even had preliminary conversations with island school district administrators about what potential collaboration could look like in the months ahead, though no plans have yet been made as part of those discussions. Health and safety protocols are mostly scripted by the department of health, but the guidelines surrounding child care, youth development and summer day camps in Washington are less restrictive than schools, meaning they can welcome students for small-group, on-site programming. And on the island, waitlists are long for available slots.

Most child care providers, day camp programs and alternative schools serving a range of age groups have now shared their initial plans for the upcoming fall, emphasizing outdoor time blended with limited inside instruction where permissible, so long as everyone is masked. The Vashon-Maury Cooperative Preschool will debut a new outdoor classroom next month built around existing playground facilities, adding rain shelters, covered art areas, climbing structures and outdoor handwashing stations while offering a distance learning option for ages four to five.

Camp Sealth, shuttered over the summer, is doing something different, introducing a new school year program called “Outdoor Connections” that is meant to support cohorts of youth from Pre-K to K-8 and their families who are impacted by COVID-19 and school closures. A full week program is offered for grades K-5 and includes designated virtual work time in the morning followed by socially-distanced camp activities, nature classes and free play time later in the day. Other programs are offered at two days a week or, for older students in grades 6-12, a one-day program includes outdoor camp activities, service learning, and leadership development. All programs are offered on a sliding scale. Registration is open now.

“We feel that we’ve got a lot of plans in place to make it as safe as possible. And it’s one of the reasons why we didn’t open it all that summer, was we wanted to take the time to get it right. And to just be as smart as possible before we did open,” Summer Camp Director Carrie Lawson said.

Klahanie School is moving forward with some class time indoors given the adequate ventilation of those spaces and small class sizes. All program offerings at The Vashon Wilderness Program will run in the fall, albeit redesigned for safety around COVID-19 — but openings are few and far between. Executive Director Stacey Hinden said some have waitlists for as many as 50 people, namely for seven to 12-year-olds.

The department of health says that in order to reduce transmission, child care providers have to maintain small group sizes totaling no more than 22 people, including all children, youth, and adults. But high demand for child care services is compounded by the reality that even with best practices around sterilization and limiting group sizes, there is still a risk of infection.

“We’re going to do our best to minimize our exposure, but there’s always a possibility,” Hinden said.

At Chautauqua Elementary School, Vashon Kids, the before- and after-school and summer enrichment program for five to 12-year-olds offered by Vashon Youth & Family Services, is serving about 35 children each day and is full-up, longtime Program Director Dalinda Vivero said. She added that this summer’s nine-week, full-day program model was all-outdoors and all-new to everyone. Her staff — down to four, plus some volunteers — put in extra labor to make it happen, setting up tables and creating stations under tents that have to be broken down each day, and the children had adjusted to change and developed new habits, namely wearing masks and maintaining separation from each other. They line up every morning standing inside spaced-apart hula-hoops waiting for their temperature to be read. They have to remember to keep their masks on in-between snacks.

Sometimes it’s unrealistic to expect full compliance from children, Vivero said, though staff tries their best to reinforce the new norms.

Vivero said it was clear in the days after the schools first closed in March that island families need Vashon Kids, though Vivero doesn’t have the staffing to accommodate more than those enrolled this summer with respect to state and county public health guidelines. Spaces are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. New this fall, Vivero said, the program — expected to continue running full-time at least through October — will split small groups between the spacious Chautauqua gymnasium and nearby cafeteria with an emphasis on outdoor time as much as possible. They will also coordinate with the school to extend online learning opportunities.

But for any educator, it’s not an ideal situation. Online lessons mostly favor independent learners, Vivero said, and staff will be stretched too thin as it is to help students gain a deeper understanding of the material they are learning remotely.

“Because for the kids that need more help, we don’t have the capacity to help them,” she said. “So those are things we’re still figuring out, how we’re going to partner with the school on that.”

The big question is what happens if someone becomes ill. The department of health says that child care programs should have a response prepared — that includes communication with staff, families, and Public Health – Seattle & King County. If a child, youth or staff member develops symptoms of COVID-19, those affected or their families need to inform the program right away if a positive diagnosis comes back. If it does, all members of the infected person’s group in the program are considered a close contact and should self-quarantine for 14 days. Vivero said she and her staff will take every precaution and follow the counsel of health experts. But they are hopeful that their resistance to viruses is stronger than average after years of working with children who easily catch and spread colds. Moreover, she said, the science is pointing to evidence that children do not become as sick as often as adults.

“I think we all do feel committed to this. And it doesn’t bring up a lot of fear,” she said.

They are not the only ones trying to see the best in the circumstances. For her part, VWP’s Hinden said that while the wilderness program teaches resilience, between mask-wearing and social distancing, the virus is at direct odds with one of the primary focuses of the nonprofit: Community building.

“For young children, that’s really challenging, and it definitely impacts the nature of connection,” she said. “We’re used to having a big group of 36 kids and their four mentors around a fire, you know, shoulder to shoulder eating snacks, laughing and telling stories. And that is not going to be possible.” Hinden added her hope that VWP children identify and engage with what they care about as they make sense of the pandemic.

“It can be very traumatic for young people. And so, with a lot of attention to safety, and a whole lot of play, we are going to get through this.”

Dana Schuerholz, the lead instructor at The Vashon Green School, has a similar perspective. She said that the 2020-21 academic year — kicking off Sept. 21 — is inspired by the pandemic, rooted in adaptation as observed in the natural world.

“It’s not just kind of making do, but it’s actually, you know, [thinking] how can this be an amazing year? And how can we make it the best we possibly can, and what will we learn?” She said.

The pivot to fully outdoor education on the school’s seven-acre campus for children ages five to 12 is key to a new youth development program pairing groups of nine or fewer students with a full-time instructor and mentor. The school will serve 27 students in total for the academic year, and there is a waitlist for further enrollment.

Before school starts, staff will run through a number of scenarios in order to prepare for health crises that may emerge during the coming year. In addition to student health screenings conducted at the beginning of every day — the data will be used during lessons focusing on public health — the campus will be divided into three separate zones for each group with covered, open-work spaces and handwashing stations.

Of course, moving entirely outside means that schooling becomes a little more rugged. Schuerholz said the next step is to ensure that students and staff have what they need to reach their goals in the new model, providing gear suited for all weather conditions. Specialists will work with students in small groups under freestanding tents in the vicinity of propane heaters when the cold sets in. And as a matter of equity, Schuerholz said, noting the many hardships that have accompanied the pandemic, the school is now offering full scholarships to four families.

Schuerholz photographed protests and demonstrations against bigotry and inaction in the midst of the AIDS epidemic (her work was featured as part of the “IN AND OUT: Being LGBTQ on Vashon Island” exhibit at the Vashon Heritage Museum). After that experience, she said she believes it is important to learn as much as possible from adversity, including from COVID-19.

“I think that children need to be living through this and not isolated from it. And I believe that they have the capacity in some ways, even more than adults do, to shift and change and understand that their choices impact not just themselves or the immediate people around them,” she said.

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