To say the last few months have been challenging for Lubbock area childcare facilities would be an understatement.
For them, responding to the coronavirus pandemic has meant keeping up with lessons and curriculum, responding to massive fluctuations in students (and the staffing needs that go with it), implementing new health and safety protocols all while trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy for kids in their formative years.
Stace Jones, chief operations officer with Christian Preschool Centers Inc. in Lubbock, acknowledged that hasn’t always been easy.
But along with the challenges and setbacks brought by the pandemic, there have been some benefits and even lessons learned for moving into the coming months, he said.
"It's still about providing a safe place for children to learn and interact," Jones said. "It’s about maintaining a safe place, giving them some certainty in an uncertain world."
For much of the spring, daycare centers in Lubbock and across the state were only available for the children of workers deemed by the state to be in essential lines of work - first responders, grocery workers, and people in communications, among others.
But that still left a considerable demand for safe, quality childcare, and that’s picking back up as more and more people are able to return to work outside of their homes.
This spring, Lubbock has seen three daycares report positive cases of the coronavirus, although none has resulted in widespread outbreaks, said Katherine Wells, Lubbock’s health director. She credits catching the cases early for keeping it that way.
Wells talked with the A-J a few days after Trinity Church’s Early Education Center confirmed to its families that one of its employees had tested positive for the coronavirus.
That prompted a chain of reporting, cleaning and quarantining procedures for the facility.
"They closed on Friday (May 22) for deep cleaning, and the children with the closest contact will stay at home for 14 days since last exposure," Wells said. "We’ll closely monitor it."
A letter sent to parents of children at Trinity Church’s Early Education Center said Germblast cleaned the entire facility over the weekend.
By Tuesday, Trinity was back open and Wells said no other person from the daycare had tested positive for the virus. She said other staff members at the daycare were told to get tested. If one of the children starts showing signs of symptoms, Wells said they would be tested as well.
Stephen Cox, superintendent of Trinity Christian School, told the A-J the daycare is following all the guidelines given to them by the local health department, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cox said the daycare had been following these guidelines prior to the positive case.
"We’re following all the protocols the health department laid out for us," Cox said. "We’d been working with Germblast for years. We’ve been having them clean regularly since the outbreak started, but once this happened, to be extra careful, they have a separate protocol for a situation like this. They hit all the areas pretty thoroughly."
Jones said he’s pleased the preschools he works with have so far been spared - but they’re closely monitoring the situation, using best practices and are prepared if a similar scenario plays out.
Christian Preschool Centers oversees several Lubbock area childcare centers, including Children’s Orchard Academy, Treehouse Children’s Academy and Learning Tree Children’s Academy.
He said enrollment quickly dropped to 35 to 45 percent of capacity during the early stages of the community’s response to the pandemic in March.
That picked up some as a few other facilities temporarily closed.
"The biggest changes early were not allowing parents in the building, temperature checks, logging them and washing hands before going into the classroom," Jones said. "Within the childcare setting, we were able to continue lessons, they were able to see the same teacher."
Children and employees wear face coverings at appropriate times, group sizes are limited and exposure to students in other classes is kept to a minimum. They’ve also, for the time being, canceled summer field trips away from the facility.
But that hasn’t limited all interaction.
"We’re still giving hugs in the classroom," Jones said, adding that nurturing, supportive environment is critical for developing children. "Our children being able to be around other children is vital for their mental health."
One good thing to come from the response to the coronavirus is a decrease in the normal illnesses that would be passed around preschools, Jones said.
The centers, like nearly all childcare facilities, already had a strict cleaning and hand washing regimen, but that’s been stepped up, Jones said.
"What we have added is someone who goes around during drop-off time and hits high-contact surfaces," he said. "We've been more diligent about it."
Jones said he’s guardedly optimistic about the coming months.
"I'm hopeful that the better that the testing gets, the quicker the process will be," he said of potential exposures and the need for quarantining at facilities. "But I know as things open up we're going to have more cases. It's not something that's going away."
He added: "I’m thankful this virus has not effected children the way that it has in the elderly population. If it had, we'd been having a very different conversation."