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Lincoln Learning Center: Child Care and Early Learning during COVID-19

April 20, 2020

Lincoln Learning Center in Phoenix is an NAEYC accredited program that is part of Desert Mission programs, a community service society of Honor Health, typically serving 150 to 170 children per day ranging in age from six weeks to 12 years old. But recently, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, much has changed. 

AzAEYC spoke with Lincoln Learning Center Director Sara Pederson about serving first responder families, dips in enrollment, and how they continue to provide the best level of care possible for young children during these extraordinary times. 

Talk about your work, and the families you serve. 

I’ve worked at Lincoln Learning Center for 23 years and became the director in June, 2019.  We have high quality, highly qualified staff. Most of our lead teachers have at least Child Development Associate (CDA) Credential™ if not higher. Most hold a bachelors, if not a masters, degree. Other teachers are growing in their education, as they say, continuing to learn and advance their education. Our children and our staff are very diverse. 

We are part of a hospital organization, Desert Mission Programs, a community service society of Honor Health. So we have a very diverse socioeconomic as well as culturally diverse center. We teach the children of doctors and nurses, children who have recently left homeless shelters. 

We seem to have more children that are in the foster care system as well as those transitioning out of the homeless shelters or single families here on scholarships. Highly qualified teachers support strategies to help these children to be successful in school.

Are you open? 

We are open. Enrollment was 150 and is now down to 50. Around 30 to 40 children per day have parents who are either hospital workers or first responders that attend right now. Some of our staff members have chosen to take some time off. 

So how are you doing, and how are the children doing?

So the kids are actually really, really well. We’ve kept our group sizes smaller. 

We try to have fewer than 10 children in a classroom with a teacher, or sometimes two teachers for support. We’ll get through this when this is all over. We’ll come back big and strong, hopefully in August when everyone hopefully goes back to school. 

I think the biggest fear is the unknown, not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow.  We’re lucky to have a great support system with our hospital team and our Desert Mission team. 

Any special measures that you’re taking when the children come for the day? 

We do a temperature check every day. We ask the parents in the foyer before they even get to the back of it or the classrooms are. And how are they feeling? Is there any coughing?  Normally, 101 F is our baseline for sending a child home. We’ve lowered it to 100 F. Same for our staff. 

We have to do that, because we’re part of the hospital. All the staff ask the same questions. Are you feeling well, any sore throats that are not allergy related. Unfortunately we’re in peak allergy time in Arizona. So, you know, we have to kind of distinguish between the two. 

Our older teachers have chosen to wear masks in the classroom explaining to the children that they are there to keep them healthy, so that they don’t give them their germs in case they’re sick. Our two year-olds don’t understand that, so our teachers in those age groups have chosen not to wear masks. We’re fortunate that we have an infectious control department that’s part of the hospital, so they’ve helped us with guidelines. 

It’s an advantage to be connected to a medical facility, yet the virus is still able to spread if people are asymptomatic.

It’s concerning, but we also know that we need to provide the best level of care possible for these children that are in our care. The children in our care don’t have anywhere else to go. Or, they would go with older family members, which isn’t safe either. We understand the risk that’s involved. Everyone is here who wants to be here. People who choose not to be here are able to take a leave of absence.

So, these early educators are also on the front lines?

I can tell you every night I go home I’m a little worried, what’s tomorrow going to bring? We do the best we can with what we have because we know we have to support our health care workers at the hospital in the building next door to us. We support not only our own hospital workers, but we support other hospital workers around the Valley as well, and first responders, some from our police department, and employees who work at the jails. 

Do you feel that the public in general understands that component of this pandemic, these early educators as frontline workers?

I don’t think it’s as well understood. We hear a lot about the health care workers and God bless them all. They have to be there, but someone has to watch the children, too, and keep them safe while this is all going on. Especially for single parents, or those who doesn’t have any family in the area, or maybe a child should not be around their grandparents. It’s important to keep their children comfortable and for them not to worry.

Lincoln Learning Center typically serves children through age 12. How are you trying to stay connected with the families who are not attending your program at present?

We send out weekly messages. Parents have sent us pictures of their children doing things at home. We sent out information about how to talk to your child about COVID-19. Phoenix Children’s Hospital created a nice workbook on how to explain the virus to children. We’re keeping up communication that way.

Did you ever envision anything like this happening?

I could never have imagined anything like this in my entire life.

I’m hoping that everyone is taking the social distancing seriously. Even though I have to come to work every day, as soon as I get home, I change my clothes, wash up, and we’re home for the rest of the night. I’m hoping everybody else is being just as cautious and courteous so that we can get through this together and get back to mending and do what we need to do.

Are you concerned for the future of so many of the other early learning programs that maybe don’t have the support of a hospital community behind them?

I am. We’re part of the Quality First program here in Arizona. Our Quality First coach has done an excellent job of getting directors together to voice concerns. But I’m worried because many are smaller centers that don’t have support, they aren’t corporate — but they’re five star quality centers or working towards that. I worry about them being successful and making it through the next couple of months until hopefully we get back to, to where we need to be.

Talk about the Arizona Enrichment Center. Any impact on the Lincoln Learning Center program?

We have that option because we are part of a hospital. Right that decision lies with our legal department. We have the staff, I can call recall staff to come back to work if needed. We’re trying to stay as low with our number of children as we can, but also be supportive so that way we’re practicing as much social distancing as we can in the classroom, which doesn’t happen with children.

How does social distancing or physical distancing work with groups of young children? There must be a bit of bleach involved…

There is! We try to keep the groups in one classroom. As long as we can keep students below 10. Every day we do our hand washing. We practice counting to 20 and during nap time, everything is washed down again. A child care health consultant. wipes down handles and everything twice a day. We’re doing our best to keep as clean as possible.

What’s the benefit of NAEYC accreditation? 

I’ve always felt comfortable that we’ve had a pretty clean facility. But developmentally appropriate practices, understanding children, and the fear they might feel — our teachers really have a good understanding and are able to support them emotionally and socially. I think that’s most important. Academics will come later if we don’t practice our ABCs and our one, two threes or we lose three months of academics at school or in a Pre-K program, But the social, emotional support that needs to happen with these kiddos right now is so important. Their parents are going through stuff. You don’t know what happens at home, if they watched the news, or what they hear. 

One child asked a teacher if they were going to die. This really is important. And that’s what hurts. I think as an adult I’ll be fine. If I get sick, I get sick. But I don’t want to hurt the children. I don’t want the children to be upset and hurt by this. So it’s important for us as early childhood professionals, to understand developmentally appropriate practice and how to talk on a child’s level, and to understand how to reassure them and remind them that, you’re safe here with us. You’re going to be okay with us. Understanding where children need to be socially, emotionally, and how important that social emotional component has been so impactful to me.

Might there a silver lining to this pandemic?

If it helps people come together, helps us be friendlier to one another, kinder to the world —even in Arizona, it’s funny, we check our air quality every morning. I’ve never seen it so clear in the last three weeks, from people working at home. So if anything, I hope this just helps us to be kinder and more patient and more understanding with one another,

Any silver lining for the early childhood profession?

We understand how important we were during this time for the children that we’re caring for and, and how we’ve helped them to come through this. We get quite a few emails every day from parents, saying “I don’t know how you do this every day. I can’t take care of my one child, I don’t know how you care for 10!” So, hopefully an appreciation at least from our families, maybe not from the world, maybe not from the news stations, but from our families. We are understanding how important we really are in the lives of the children that we serve and the entire family.

We’re fortunate to be part of a great program and I have some great teachers who have been here for 15, 20 years. We’re going to get through this and I can’t wait till we get to the other side. Hopefully life will get to a new normal. I don’t think it’s ever gonna get back to 100% normal, but the new normal — we’ll get used to it.

Sara Pederson is the director of Lincoln Learning Center, an early learning program accredited by NAEYC since 1993.

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