An Oral History of Early Childhood Educators During the Pandemic

Jul 13, 2021 by

An Oral History of Early Childhood Educators During the Pandemic
Erin Horlacher for EdSurgw

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about early childhood education.

Yessika Magdaleno, owner of a home-based child care program in Orange County, Calif., is a problem-solver by nature. When she opened her program 20 years ago, she attracted families by expanding her hours to nights and weekends to accommodate those with non-traditional work hours. When she felt that her own children were not well-served by the local afterschool program, Magdaleno expanded her program to include afterschool care.

But even with her knack for problem-solving, Magdaleno was unprepared for the extreme stress and uncertainty of being an early childhood educator during this pandemic year.

There were small challenges, like getting 2-year-old children to wear masks, or finding electrical outlets to accommodate all the laptops that the school-aged children in her care needed for remote learning. There were major headaches, like figuring out how to stretch state subsidies intended just for afterschool care to cover the costs of full-time care. There were humiliations, like the time, early in the pandemic, when Costco wouldn’t accept a letter authorizing Magdaleno to purchase goods for use in her “essential” business.

But most of all, there was fear. Fear about maintaining her business when the country shut down. Fear about paying her staff when enrollment declined. And at the root of it all, there was fear about the virus.

There was fear every time a child arrived with a runny nose, and every time a child mentioned attending a birthday party over the weekend. There was fear with every call that Magdaleno—a leader among home-based providers in California—received from worried colleagues.

At first, they called asking how they could keep their businesses afloat, how they could get the cleaning supplies they needed. Later, providers called to share the news that a student’s mother had tested positive, that a husband, an uncle, a mother, a sister was sick, that a friend was in the hospital.

In December, she said, “Today, I got three phone calls from three providers that got infected, and they have to close. And they don’t know if they’re going to get paid. That’s how difficult we’re living.” There’s not a lot she can do. “And listening to them, you can’t say, ‘Well, everything is going to be O.K.,’ because you don’t know if everything is going to be O.K. [It’s] heartbreaking, because you have to be strong for them.”

Magdaleno understood the fear viscerally. The virus came for her family, too. An uncle died. Her brother and his family were sick at Christmas. Things got so bad that Magdaleno asked if her brother had a will. What would happen to his kids? She wanted him to be prepared. It was a conversation that people were having all over Magdaleno’s community in Southern California, where COVID-19 rates were exploding.

But amid all the fear, there were good moments, too. The children in her program seemed happy. The families participated in a gift exchange at Christmas. By late winter, the school-aged kids went back to their K-12 classrooms and Magdaleno could concentrate on the babies and preschoolers for most of the day.

And, by March, after the surge, there was hope, too. Magdaleno saw that educators in her program let go of some of their fear once they got vaccinated. Daily COVID-19 case counts fell. Asked to describe her emotions in March, Magdaleno said that she was “blessed, confident, stable.” The fear was loosening its grip, day-by-day, even if there were still scars of this pandemic year.

Early childhood educators have faced a year like no other during the pandemic. It’s been a year punctuated by fear, panic, frustration, anxiety and, at times, hope. From December 2020 through May 2021, EdSurge followed seven early childhood educators from across the country. The group is comprised of women who work in a variety of roles and settings, from California to Pennsylvania. Participants were provided a small stipend for participating in this research project and took part in monthly interviews and surveys. Through these research activities, we learned, in deeply personal terms, what it looks like to teach young learners, engage with families, run businesses and manage personal and professional stress during the pandemic.

This is the story of how those educators managed—from mid-March 2020, when many early childhood education programs closed their doors, unsure if or when they would reopen, through the darkest moments of a deadly winter, to plummeting COVID-19 case counts and rising vaccine levels that the country experienced in spring 2021. This oral history presents those experiences in the words of the practitioners themselves. They’ve been condensed, lightly edited, and assembled by EdSurge researcher and labor historian Rachel Burstein.

Meet the Educators

Adrienne Briggs is owner and educator of Lil’ Bits Family Child Care Home in Philadelphia, a program serving children from ages 0 to 5.

Briggs is licensed to enroll six children, but had only three children in her program in December 2020. Briggs explained, “I have not been comfortable bringing in anybody brand new [amid concerns about safety during the pandemic]. And also, I’m not getting the type of calls that I used to because so many people are working from home.” Because she doesn’t have a mortgage or employees, Briggs was able to shoulder the lost revenue.

Shelley Jolley is an education manager and disability specialist at Rural Utah Child Development Head Start, which serves children from ages 0 to 5 near Price, Utah.

Jolley and a colleague supervise all the educators among 13 Head Start classrooms across 17,000 square miles. In addition, Jolley monitors compliance with requirements around students with disabilities.

In normal times, Jolley spends a lot of time traveling, visiting classrooms and teachers and conducting assessments and observations. She was used to video meetings even before the pandemic, given how spread out programs in her service area are, but shared, “It’s harder to build the rapport and the relationships over Zoom.”

Yessika Magdaleno is owner and educator of Little Flowers, a home-based child care program serving children from ages 0 to 12 in Garden Grove, Calif.

Magdaleno’s program is open to young children full-time, including nights and weekends. In addition, children who attend the elementary school across the street join for afterschool care. During the pandemic, Magdaleno supervised elementary-aged children during their remote learning as well.

Magdaleno explains the realities of being a family child care provider, a role she’s held for about 20 years. “You are the nutritionist, the teacher, the one that cleans, the ones that take care of the business account. And if you have employees, you take care of the employees, their payrolls. So you’re the one doing everything.” These challenges have been even more acute during the pandemic, as Magdaleno sorts through unclear and changing rules and regulations, and as she struggles to protect the health and safety of the children in the program, her employees, and own family.

Maríaelena Lozano is owner and director of Westchester Academy and Learning Center, a bilingual program serving children from ages 0 to 8 in Miami.

Lozano’s program is licensed to serve 56 students through third grade, but she doesn’t currently have the space to accommodate students beyond first grade.

Eight years ago, Lozano opened her school with her brother, a retired police officer. Lozano didn’t close her program at all during the pandemic, but through May of last year she had just three students. By December, Lozano’s enrollment had rebounded, and she described her biggest challenge as one of space: “I don’t have the space to grow because I’m in a rented location. So one of the goals for me for next year is to purchase a building.”

Paula Polito is owner and director of Beary Cherry Tree, a child care center that serves children from ages 0 to 5 in the Greater New Orleans Area of Louisiana.

Beary Cherry Tree has been in Polito’s family for three generations, though Polito has expanded it significantly to its current capacity of 225 children, with 14,000 square feet of space, and 60 teachers on staff.

Managing Beary Cherry Tree hasn’t always been easy for Polito. She recalls when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. “We lost our house … I came back to my child care center. I had $600,000 in damage. My entire building, one of the walls was on the ground and we were pregnant with our first child. I always said, ‘If I have to do another Katrina, I won’t be able to do it.’” Polito describes the pandemic as, “Katrina times 10.”

Kathy Yanez is owner and educator of Nuestra Casita Nursery, a home-based program serving children ages 0 to 5 in Santa Monica, Calif.

Yanez opened her program in August 2019, after two decades as a preschool teacher in a center-based program. Yanez says, “I’ve always dreamed about being a business owner.” She “put everything I had” into renting a home to use for her program, leaving the affordable housing unit where she and her teenage daughter had been living. “I just relied on my experience, my knowledge of early childhood, and a lot of praying,” Yanez remembers.

Just as Yanez felt that she was on firm footing with enrollment, staffing and curriculum, the pandemic struck. When we spoke in December, Yanez described the first six months of the pandemic as “going into survival mode. ‘What’s going to happen next? Can I pay my rent for next month? What happens when the loan is depleted?’ It’s just a lot of that.”

Shemeakia Zinnerman is a substitute teacher for 3- and 4-year-olds at Guilford Child Development, a Head Start provider in the Piedmont region of North Carolina.

Zinnerman has been working in early childhood education since 1999. She is pursuing an associate’s degree that will allow her to become a lead teacher.

The work is challenging, and can be heartbreaking, but Zinnerman says that it is deeply needed. When we met in February, she said that at Head Start, “We take on the children that nobody thinks about,” such as children with special needs and those who do not have loving, nurturing environments at home. “It’s hard. Sometimes I want to cry, to be honest,” she says.

A map showing the locations of the seven participants in EdSurge’s oral history research project

Spring 2020: ‘The Most Depressing, Scariest, Uncertain Time of My Life’

By the time we began speaking with early childhood educators in December, there was some rhythm, if not exactly stability, in the day-to-day experiences of educators. But to a one, practitioners recalled the early days of the pandemic as traumatic, especially for owners who had to make hard decisions about whether to close, how to make payroll and mortgage or rent payments, whether to charge families, and how to keep children and staff safe.

continue: An Oral History of Early Childhood Educators During the Pandemic | EdSurge News

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