In December, Paula had a sinus and ear infection. She tested negative and went back to work. When one of her students got sick at school, it was her responsibility to wait with her unmasked student in a room, waiting for a parent to arrive. Paula tested positive for COVID shortly after that, and she still had a sinus infection. She wonders if she were given an antibiotic on the first visit to the doctor, her immune system would have protected her.
After risking her health for her work kid, Paula could not be with her daughter at Christmas. At any sign of sniffles, her daughter stays in NH so she won’t miss any school.
As for her Early Start class, enrollment is still at half capacity. Paula says that the children are needier without all their playmates.
Worry has been the theme for this single mom and classroom support aide. She said she doesn’t think people realize what the teachers do. “It’s a learning process for us too…. They don’t understand how much we sit at home, worrying about their kids.”
Shannon Murray owns Curious Kids, a private preschool in Merrimac, Massachusetts. Before COVID, the class was in her home where she lives with her family. Shannon’s family and the families of her students share a very different demographic from Paula and her Early Head Start students.
In early March 2020, Shannon said, “I remember…this strange, something’s coming, this wave coming from the horizon… It felt scary. It felt like I had this real sense of responsibility for people’s health and safety. And I didn’t know if I was qualified. Who was I to understand COVID?” She modified her sick policy so there was no tuition if a child was home sick. Disinfection and sanitation were increased.
Shannon decided to follow her local school system’s decision, so when they closed, Curious Kids did too. Her family knew it was risky but felt it a risk they had to take. She wondered if the decision would be a risk to her reputation.
Most parents were supportive of Shannon’s decision to close. Some were uncomfortable with it. Shannon said, “It was interesting to see…. Political differences among families and the COVID connections there became very clear.” A week later, the state mandated her closure. Shannon said that she knew she made the right decision, and it was nice to have her children home.
Unemployment was not available to self-employed individuals when she closed. The Curious Kids community rallied around to do what they could to help. Some contributed 25 percent of their child’s usual tuition. Others could not. It took patience and understanding, but Shannon said, “Everyone was loving and supportive.” In May, unemployment opened for her, and she received retroactive payments. “It was a big relief.”
With Curious Kids closed, Shannon’s attention focused on her family. Shannon’s daughter fell into depression, fearing the loss of a family member. Her mother-in-law’s health issues caused them all to worry about getting her sick.
Shannon’s husband, Pete, is the director of campus recreation at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. It was painful for him to lay off less essential employees, and there was uncertainty about his job. “It was stressful. Just very stressful.”
When summer came, Shannon tried to Zoom an hour each day with her students. She tried read-alouds. Parents picked up project kits curbside. It wasn’t appropriate for preschoolers and not what they need.
In August, Shannon reopened Curious Kids based on her research on entirely outdoor forest school programs. She piloted a fully outdoor preschool starting with two hours per day. Her screened-in porch became her schoolroom. The kids did great, even during thunderstorms.
In September, Shannon extended the school day to five hours. Curious Kids continues to meet from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every weekday. Shannon said, “ It has changed my expectations of what kids can handle as a school and what parents will support.” Before COVID forced her classroom outside, Shannon found there was a disconnect between what kids need to be healthy and safe, with what parents provided. Now she knows what to ask to keep her students comfortable during rain, teen temperatures and snow. “I’m such an optimist. It’s all gains.”
Shannon was intrigued with forest preschool programs before COVID. Lockdown gave her time to do more research. Restrictions made is necessary. Shannon said, “Everything that I read is really validating of what I’m doing and why it is good for the kids. It’s very encouraging.”
Shannon’s challenge was balancing anxiety, and she admitted it was intense at first. The masks still make some of the children uncomfortable. Wearing a mask outside is at the parents’ discretion, but a mask must be worn when using the bathroom inside. Communication with masks can be challenging, but interaction with the children has not changed. Shannon still hugs them. “It doesn’t feel too risky. It feels necessary.” Activities are planned for space between the children, but it’s impractical for preschoolers.
Shannon is in contact with preschools that have opened with inside learning, and they all have had outbreaks. At Curious Kids, everyone has been healthy unlike a typical school year with preschoolers. Parents are cooperative and keep their child at home for two weeks if they know of COVID contact.
Shannon maintains her financial stability and her enrollment. The success of the outdoor school is a validation of the nature program she always wanted to do. Her reputation is intact, and she believes bolstered by its success.
There are some things that Shannon’s students lost. The end of the 2020 school year faded away with no good-byes or celebration. There’s less academic time, but Shannon said, “I think they are getting a lot of what is essential in childhood.”
During this year of social justice focus, Shannon thinks about her privilege. Her student’s families can flex and send their children for three hours: they can change every day if necessary. When Shannon comes inside after three hours in the freezing rain, she thinks, “To be able to do something that might be physically uncomfortable, it still feels like quite a privilege to be able to do it.”
Shannon confessed to being an introvert. “Constant commitment can be draining. It’s nice to have a slower pace.”
Shannon the optimist sees the silver lining of that strange unknown that came from the horizon last March. “All the family time…. My kids are homeschooling right now…. I feel more deeply connected to the families that I work with and social connections.”