The teachers and staff at the 13 YWCA child care centers throughout St. Louis are the essential workers who support the essential workers.
“They are glad that we are open because we do have parents that depend on us,” said YWCA Head Start teacher Marilyn Holmes-Collins. “They can’t take off. They don't have PPO time or anything like that for things like this. My heart goes out to parents who are not fortunate to stay home to care for their children.”
Before the coronavirus health crisis, the YWCA Early Education Program had about 1,000 students up to age 5. Today, health guidelines enforcing social distancing have forced the centers to reduce its student body by half. But chief program officer Stacy Johnson said she has not had to reduce any of her staff, which includes 198 teachers.
“When we restructured, we worked everybody in,” Johnson said. “Our intention wasn’t to lay anyone off.”
Johnson said she collaborated with teachers and, using CDC safety recommendations, came up with strategies to ensure the safety of both the students and staff. On June 1, the centers reopened with new ways of doing things.
Johnson said that the program has purchased sanitization equipment for the cleaning staff to use at least twice a day and gloves and disinfectant for the teachers to use in the classroom.
Depending upon classroom size, a typical classroom now has ten students and two teachers. Students and teachers remain in the one classroom all day and lunch and snacks are served inside of each contained classroom. No visitors are allowed and every teacher and staff member is required to wear a mask at all times.
“This is our new normal,” Johnson said. “It’s our test drive before the new school year opens.”
The summer program, focusing on the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) curriculum, will end in August, giving Johnson and her staff a chance to reset before the school year begins Sept. 8.
While Johnson said, “Some staff had reservations,” but the majority of teachers showed up in May after the centers were shut down in March at the onset of the pandemic.
Holmes-Collins, who has been a teacher with the YWCA Head Start for five years of her 21-year teaching career, was one of those teachers. She is a lead head start teacher at the Betty J. Robinson Head Start on the city’s north side, which has a 90 percent African American student enrollment.
“I feel confident. It’s different, and I’m always preparing for changes at all times,” she said. “So, to be involved in an experiment like this, I can have it under my belt and get all the information I need to prepare.”
Holmes-Collins said being prepared is key and that it’s important for teachers, students and their families to work together to contain the spread of the virus.
“Of course, we’re keeping on our toes with hand sanitizing and face masks and preparing ourselves as teachers for social distancing,’ she said. “We’re also helping our parents to practice social distancing and how they can help the little ones social distance before they come in the school.”
Holmes-Collins said she stays vigilant about keeping her own family safe. She hangs a robe by her front door so that she can leave her clothes “right at the door.”
“It’s always a concern, especially leaving your family and coming out here,” she said. “So as a parent and teacher, I have to be safe at all times as far as hand sanitizing, washing my hands thoroughly and keeping my mask on.”
Johnson said the teachers have been responsive to the demands of the virus, the needs of the Head Start program and the needs of the families they support.
“I asked my staff, what do they think about us reopening? Everybody got an opportunity to chime in about what they thought,” she said. “And they said, ‘Five days a week – that’s what parents need,’ and it allows us to do what we need to do for the kids.”