Preschool programs forge ahead during the COVID-19 pandemic but raise a warning flag

Early childhood education providers like the Carole Robertson Center for Learning in North Lawndale and Little Village are straining to keep functioning.

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Following COVID-19 safety procedures in place since reopening June 22, Alejandra Soto helps Jesus Rodriguez wash his hands at the Carole Robertson Center for Learning, 3701 W. Ogden Ave.

Following COVID-19 safety procedures in place since reopening June 22, Alejandra Soto helps Jesus Rodriguez wash his hands at the Carole Robertson Center for Learning, 3701 W. Ogden Ave.

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It’s been seven weeks now since the Carole Robertson Center for Learning reopened its early childhood education programs in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it hasn’t been easy.

There were new safety procedures for staff, extra responsibilities for everyone plus added costs for protective equipment, cleaning and staffing requirements.

On three occasions, someone contracting the virus necessitated the closing of an entire classroom, requiring all students and teachers in the class to stay home for two weeks.

When that happens, other families often choose to keep their children home for a while, too. Government funding that’s tied to enrollment and attendance dwindles as a result.

But even as the Chicago Public Schools will be keeping classrooms closed this fall, the Carole Robertson Center and other nonprofit organizations that form the backbone of Chicago’s early childhood education network are forging ahead.

There’s not much choice. Their families need them, perhaps now more than ever, as a source of quality preschool education but also for child care, after-school and summer programming for their school-age children, even for diapers and food.

More basically, they need them as a source of strength as the pandemic and its economic fallout have stressed so many other aspects of their lives.

The Carole Robertson Center operates in North Lawndale and Little Village, serving communities that have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus and by the city’s summer of violence. Many of the parents are essential workers who don’t have the choice of working from home.

Most of the other major early childhood providers fulfill similar roles in their neighborhoods, which I gather is why they sent up a joint distress signal of sorts recently. In a written statement, leaders of 14 community nonprofits warned that COVID-19 is “destabilizing our classrooms” by creating more need for services while damaging their financial underpinnings.

“Without stable funding, we can’t fulfill our promise,” they wrote in a plea to government and private-sector supporters.

This comes after a decade in which there have been notable advances in recognizing that properly funding early childhood education is a key to helping low-income families bridge the yawning opportunity gap.Now, those gains appear fragile.

“The ripple effects of this virus will be felt for a very, very long time,” said Bela Mote, the Carole Robertson Center’s CEO.

Early childhood education providers like the Carole Robertson Center for Learning are straining to keep functioning during the pandemic.

Early childhood education providers like the Carole Robertson Center for Learning are straining to keep functioning during the pandemic.

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Her organization was the first of the city’s early childhood centers to reopen after the governor’s shutdown order was lifted.

“We were the litmus test,” Mote said.

The preschool program normally operates at a capacity of 400 children.Since reopening, enrollment is back up to 200, actual attendance somewhat below that.

With some state funding currently tied to those benchmarks, Mote wants the state to give organizations like hers more flexibility during the pandemic regarding any attendance falloff in recognition of the higher costs of keeping their doors open.

Some aspects of reopening have been easier than anticipated, such as getting young children to wear their face masks.

“They don’t sweat it. They adapt,” Mote said.

It’s the adults who have more of a problem adjusting, she said.

Understandably, there was a lot of anxiety for the teachers in the early stages of returning to the classroom, Mote said, but, as time went on, the greater problem is almost the opposite — letting down their guard.

“Since reopening, one of the things we’re realizing: We have to keep the pandemic front and center,” she said.

That can mean remembering to not let the kids get too close to each other and to wipe down the counter after an activity.

The center has continued to provide remote learning programs for kids who are staying home. Home visits with parents, normally a key element of the agency’s programming, have been moved online, too.

Now that CPS has decided to stick with remote learning when fall classes resume, Mote is bracing for the impact that will have on Carole Robertson Center and other nonprofits. She expects more families will be looking for help, for a safe place for their school-age children to spend the day.

“Every day is a new day,” Mote said, “and we just hold our breath and pray for the best.”

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