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Childcare During COVID-19: A Director’s Perspective

teacher taking temperature of student

On this podcast, we talk with Dr. Brent McBride about the impact of COVID-19 on childcare from a director’s perspective.

More About Our Guest

Dr. McBride is the director of the Child Development Laboratory and a professor of human development at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


This podcast is the first in a three-part series on childcare during COVID-19. Part 2 focuses on a teacher’s perspective, and Part 3 focuses on two parents’ perspectives.


Introduction (Natalie Danner): Thanks for joining us for a podcast from the Illinois Early Learning Project. Our project is part of the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. On this podcast, we share information about how young children grow and learn, as well as strategies adults can use to help them thrive. My name is Natalie Danner. 

Natalie Danner: Welcome to the Illinois Early Learning Podcast. Today, we are talking about childcare during COVID-19. This is the first podcast in a three-part series so be sure to be on the lookout for parts 2 and 3 as they’re released. Today we are joined by Dr. Brent McBride of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. McBride is the director of the Child Development Laboratory on campus and National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)–accredited early childhood program and lab school for 160 children ages infant through preschool. He is also one of the leading researchers in the area of father involvement. Thank you so much for being with us today Brent. 

Brent McBride: Hi, thank you Natalie. I enjoyed the invitation. I appreciate the invitation. 

Natalie Danner: So today we’re eager to hear from you as the director of the Child Development Lab because you have a very interesting story of how you continued operating during COVID-19 and the lessons you learned. So, to start us off, let’s go back to the beginning of the pandemic last spring. What happened to the Child Development Lab as COVID-19 first began to impact residents in Illinois? 

Brent McBride: Well, as you know, as a university-based laboratory school, we have a two-part mission: We serve and address the early care and educational needs of 160 children and their families, while at the same time balancing that service side of what we do with the academic side of what we do, which is to support teaching research, outreach, and engagement here on the university’s campus.  

And to do that we do a lot of different things like we have plus of 4,000 students coming through our doors for observations and support, coursework—students doing field placements, internships, practicum placements, students engaged in research projects, I can go on and on and on. In March, when the University of Illinois said we need to stop and move everything after spring break to an online format of instruction, we as a university-based lab school ceased functioning as a lab school and immediately went into a service entity only. So, we continued providing that early care and education for a couple weeks after that decision was made to our children whose families were comfortable continuing to send their children to the program.  

When the governor’s stay-at-home orders came out though, that basically shut down childcare throughout the state, except for those under emergency license. We immediately applied for emergency license, and we had a capacity that could go up to serving 28 children under that emergency license. So, we could no longer serve those 160 children and their families that we normally did. And we operated under that emergency license for essential employees, both essential employees on our campus and community families as well.  

As a unit, here, on the University of Illinois campus during that time when we were operating under that emergency license, we had 44 full-time staff members. We maintained, at the direction of the university administration, all 44 employees, so they were all working, so we didn’t need 44 teachers to take care of 28 kids. But what we did is we used that time to our benefit, in terms of having that time to develop and focus on our own professional development, as teachers to focus on coming up with the plans so once we went back into large-scale operation, what are the things that we need to do in terms of safety protocols, policies, and practices that we needed to have in place, ready to go, once the doors came open again.  

Natalie Danner: Wow, so spring gave you a great opportunity to not only meet the needs of families in the area but also to have the benefit of that smaller enrollment during that time to develop and work out day-to-day practices for COVID-19. So what are some of those things that you learned during that time of trial and error? 

Brent McBride: And I cannot stress to you how important that time was. So, it wasn’t like we were waiting, waiting, waiting, then the doors open and here came 140 kids, or something like that. We used that small-scale number to figure out things like, what kind of drop-off and pick-up procedures do we need to have in place that really work for us and work for our families as well.  

How do we handle traffic flow, egress, ingress, into the building and out of the building in such a way that we could follow all those safety protocols that we were being asked to live by? How could we use that time on the very small scale to fine tune our screening procedures at drop off and at pick up as well? How do we do temps for kids and their families and staff as they’re coming and going in a way that doesn’t create bottlenecks? How do we do things like sanitizing multiple times during the course of the day with staff members? How can we do that in such a way that it doesn’t disrupt the programming you are providing the children but still meets the health and safety needs? How do we handle classroom staffing patterns?  

Well you know, it used to be where we would have floaters that would go from classroom to classroom to deal with breaks and lunch times and so on. You had to figure out how to not hold indoor staff during this time. So, having that small-scale opportunity, made it so that once we moved back up to large numbers, we were very confident with what we had in place. 

Natalie Danner: Great, so how did you continue to connect with other families who weren’t essential workers during that time and their young children? 

Brent McBride: For me, as an educator, that was a very interesting process. As a somewhat older educator who is a little bit skeptical of technology, especially with young, young children, I was a little bit leery of it. But as I watched my teachers, you know, again, we didn’t need 44 teachers to engage 28 kids, they put a lot of effort and a lot of time into outreach and engagement activities with the families. 

So, they were doing regularly, twice a week, three times a week, these Zoom group time meetings with as many kids as possible to do things like story time, physical activity time, group dance time, music time, and so on. They also did Zoom one on ones with the kids, just to maintain that connection, and I think that was very important for some of our children to maintain that connection. We had some teachers who did one on one Zoom meetings with parents, as a support mechanism as well, because parents were under a lot of stress as they were learning to cope with this new reality as well as their children. Each of the classrooms also developed these activity packets that they sent home on a regular basis. They would schedule times; we have a circle drive in front of one of our two buildings, they would schedule times when parents would come to pick up these activity packets. They would have things for the children to engage in with their parents at home. The parents would send us pictures of that engagement with those materials. They would post them for their newsletters and so on.  

We also did weekly food distribution. About a third of our families, we see some sort of tuition support through the childcare assistance program, through a couple different grants that we have for low-income student parents and through our sliding fees scale. So, we made on Friday afternoons, available, food distribution that parents would drive in through the circle drive in and we give it to them because we were under contract from the caterers to get the food, so we had to do something with the food, and I thought that was a good way to deal with it. 

Natalie Danner: That’s great! So, you talked a little bit about the health and safety of the children and the families that you were thinking about. How have the new health and safety standards impacted you as a center and then what are the policies that you’re currently following in the center this fall? 

Brent McBride: Well, we’re definitely not looking like we were at this time last year. So much of our daily life has changed. Anything from even though the state of Illinois, we’re in Phase 4, we’re no longer operating under emergency license. We’re still limited on capacity for group size. So instead of 160 children, we’re only serving 144. We’ve had significant changes in how we’ve handled drop-off and pick-up procedures. We have restricted the time frames of when this can occur, just because it’s a staffing issue. You have to have people there to do the screenings and so on. We’ve had things where we can no longer mix children. So, we can’t have two groups together in a space, they can’t have shared spaces, playgrounds and inside spaces as well.  

We can no longer do co-mingling of staff, which has a significant impact on how we staff our classrooms. We’ve limited the group sizes that we have within a classroom, in terms of table activities. Rather than having five or six at a table, we’ll limit to two or three, depending on what the activity is. We no longer practice family-style meal service, again, because that was one of the things that’s recommended that we not do. We’re doing a heck of a lot of laundry. The bedding, and so on, the smocks for the teachers, all these things, need to be cleaned on a much more regular basis. We don’t have comfort toys coming from home, the soft, cushy, comfort toys.  

All the kids who are 2 or older, they are wearing masks at all times, except for when you are eating or when you are in an outdoor situation on the playground or going for a walk. We changed logistically how we handle nap time. Used to be, we just line the cots up, you know, right next to each other, and kids would fall asleep. We have changed it to encourage distancing and so on. Another example, and this is a big one, kids have to have school shoes. So, they come in with their outside shoes on, they get to the program, part of the drop-off procedure involves them changing their shoes before they enter the classroom. You know, that sounds hokey, but it is a big thing trying to figure out how to do that.  

We’ve had to change our exclusion policies following Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines and in fact just gave us a new update, an exclusion flow chart. These decisions on when to send a child home and under what criteria you’re using, it’s very important that we’ve had to learn to communicate that to the families so that they understand we’re just not picking on you, we’re not just saying we don’t want to take care of your child, there are some reasons why.  

And since all of this has happened, since we’ve moved back up into Phase 4, we’ve had two situations where we’ve had individuals of the department who have tested positive, and each time we worked with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District and instructions were from them that we only shut down the affected classroom, rather than the entire program. And that to me tells me that all of these mitigation efforts, these new health and safety policies that we have in place, they’re really working. Otherwise we would have ended up closing the entire program. 

Natalie Danner: Wonderful, I mean that’s a lot of change in one year to think about all of those different policies and practices that you’ve implemented, so kudos to you and to your staff at the center. 

Brent McBride: They’re the heroes, not me. 

Natalie Danner: So, let’s talk about, since we were talking about those heroes, let’s talk about the early childhood educators in your program. How does COVID-19 impact staffing in the center? 

Brent McBride: That’s been an interesting process to see how this has all unfolded. Back in March and April, it was a very weird time to be here. We were all just trying to figure out, you know, which end is up, which end is down. Things were changing so rapidly. Staff were feeling that we were never being honest with them, we weren’t being transparent with them, we were always changing our minds. That was all because of the guidance that we were receiving from above, whether it was from the CDC, the Illinois Department of Public Health, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health, and actually the campus too. Things were changing very, very quickly, so in the last part of March and full month of April, the stress level was out the roof.  

Things had subsided, though, as we moved out that emergency license and we realized that we knew what we were doing. We had things in place so that stress started to subside, but it didn’t go away. And I think that’s the important part that as director of the program I have to acknowledge this stress will never go away when we’re operating under the times of a pandemic. And teachers are being asked to do a very, very difficult job in this kind of a context. And because of that I always have to be aware that that stress is out there. So, the little things that a year ago staff would slack off or something would pop up and, well okay, I can deal with that. They have become very big now because of this stress. And one of the things I keep reminding staff is that you have to be good to yourself, you have to do that to take care of yourself, you have to tap out in you need to during the course of the day, or you have to say “hey I need a personal day,” no questions asked. Sometimes that’s hard for staff to say, “I need help,” but you know we try to create an environment that would allow them to do that.  

We are also very fortunate here on the University of Illinois campus. The faculty/staff assistance program is pretty phenomenal. I’ve been fortunate as director, that I have been a resource that I can move my staff to. There have been a couple situations where an individual staff member was not okay at all, and it was spilling over into how he or she was working and doing her job or his job. And knowing that the faculty/staff assistance program was there, allowed me to say, hey here are some resources, you need to get some feedback on how you can better cope so it doesn’t have an impact on what you do in your daily life. There’s no end on the horizon, the immediate horizon, probably it’s not going to go away anytime soon. This is very real for staff, so the constant message is we have to take care of ourselves.  

The other way in which the pandemic has really had an impact on us staff-wise, is staffing levels. We have lost staff because they’re not comfortable working in this kind of environment. We lost a staff member because she has compromised health issues, and she could not return to work, her doctor would not let her return to work under the current context because of that health risk. We had a staff member who has an elementary age child with special needs where her childcare for him is very, very critical. With limited face-to-face instruction in the schools, the childcare situation that she has available for him is only for a half-day experience, so we had to adjust her schedule to allow her to be there to help support him for the other half of the day. But, probably what’s really most pressing from our perspective is when a staff position comes open, finding people to replace that person. This has been a challenge. People aren’t jumping up and down saying this is the career I want to go into right now in the midst of a pandemic. It’s very, very challenging to find somebody. 

Natalie Danner: Yeah, that sounds like quite a few challenges but also some real awareness of the importance of self-care and the importance of supports on campus and supports for employees that are available to them so thinking also on similar lines but moving towards families, how did families react to those new ways of operating that you’re doing right now during COVID-19? 

Brent McBride: I know the listeners can’t see this, but you can see the smile on my face. By and large what I have to say on that is our families have been really good, they’ve been really supportive of what we’re trying to achieve. They understand some of the hurdles that we’re having to place. They understand when we’re doing things and implementing things, policies and practices that are really impacting them and disrupting their life. They understand that there’s a reason behind it, which is to keep everybody safe. So by and large, the biggest majority of our families are very supportive of what we do, but that doesn’t apply to everyone though.  

Just like in the other context, you know, we had some families who’ve withdrawn their children, because they’re fearful. They feel like this is not a context, I have the ability, I’m going to make arrangements, or maybe I’m working from home, I’ll just go ahead and take care of my child. We’ve had several families who voiced objections when we were operating under the emergency license because they needed the care or they thought they needed the care and they tried to argue that they should be receiving care even though the emergency license wouldn’t allow us to do that. This is hard to believe but some parents voiced objections when we had to close a classroom because of an individual who tested positive and the children who had to quarantine, they didn’t quite understand the thought process behind that.  

Probably the biggest objection that I’ve heard, again this is very small scale, but it’s a big objection, is not being able to enter into our classrooms or our observation booths. We want parents to feel a part of our program, we want them to feel we are a part of their family, open door policies and so on, and we cannot do that anymore and that is very frustrating. So when a parent is going through this drop-off protocol and their child is struggling during that transition, and they’re in tears and stuff, they want to go into the observation booth and make sure they calm down, or they want to go into the classroom to help them get situated. We can’t go to those things. And that’s been a concern for some parents.  

And then some families have voiced objections because we are on the university campus and there are university students allowed. We don’t have the students coming and doing observations, we don’t have them doing fieldwork, or anything like that, but we do have a few student employees work for us. I feel confident they are going through the testing protocols just like the rest of us are. 

Natalie Danner: So, since you just brought up some testing protocols, I’ll skip a little bit ahead here to our testing question which, as many of our listeners may already know, University of Illinois faculty and staff as well as students are lucky to have access to weekly saliva based-testing. And they do that either weekly, or two or even three times a week. So, with this innovative access to testing on campus, what does testing look like in the lab school? 

Brent McBride: Sure, when the testing system was actually first rolled out and all faculty, all staff, and all students were required to go through twice-a-week testing, our staff was just part of that process. When the university made the decision a few weeks ago to back off so that only students had to do the twice-a-week testing, and faculty/staff would do once-a-week testing, the CU Public Health District recommended that we continue the twice a week testing, due to the increased potential exposures that childcare providers are facing.  

So, every one of our staff members and our student workers, they are going through twice-a-week testing protocols. Any family who has a university affiliation, also to get into our buildings have to go through that testing protocol, even if they’re working remotely from home, they’re doing their instruction or their doing whatever their job entails, from a remote system and they’re not coming on campus, if they want to get into our buildings, they have to go through that testing protocol and then show the Safer Illinois App showing they have access is granted to U of I buildings. And approximately three-fourths, 75 percent of our families have some sort of a university connection.  

Twenty-five percent of our children are children of faculty; 25 percent are children of support staff, building service workers, cooks, and so on; 25 percent are children of students, both undergraduate and graduate, and they all have access to the testing, so to come into this building, in order to drop their kids off and pick them up, they have to show that they’ve gone through that testing. The last 25 percent are community families who don’t have access to this testing, they go through additional steps during our drop off and pick up screening protocols. They have to answer additional sets of questions about travel, symptoms, those types of things. 

Natalie Danner: Got it, so I think your families really have great security in understanding their risk level and feeling secure and in where they are in their health and risk level to COVID-19, so that is great. So, when we go back to children, we talked about families, we talked about teachers, but when we’re talking about children, was there anything that surprised you about how they adjusted to these new protocols and new policies that you had? 

Brent McBride: Yeah, I was pleasantly surprised by this. You know, people were sounding alarm bells, especially back in March and April, and you could see on the horizon that we were going to have to change our day-to-day practices and change them in very significant ways, and people were saying, my staff was saying, “Oh we can’t do that, kids will never do that.” Well, everything that I’ve watched happen over the past few months, just underscores the resiliency that we see in children if they’re allowed to be resilient. They cope much better than parents, they’ve coped much better than my teachers, with these new protocols, with the drop off and pick up procedures. They’re not doing family-style meal service, no big deal. Oh, we have to put these masks on, no big deal. They are coping extremely, extremely well.  

And I think that is a take-away message that we have to put our faith in kids, even little things, like a concern that many of my teachers expressed, how are children going to be able to judge and evaluate emotions if they can’t see your face. I did a little test, an off-the-wall test, the other day because I was getting ready for a course on teaching to talk about this. I go into the classroom, fully masked, I walk up to a group of 3-year-olds, and I ask them, I said, “Take a look at me, what can you see?” And they said, oh we see your eyes and that kind of stuff. I said, “okay I want to tell you about four basic emotions, happy, sad, angry, or afraid. You tell me which emotion I’m experiencing.” And I changed that just with my eyes and my face, my forehead, and they could do it.  

So, this fear that children would be losing something in terms of that emotional engagement and understanding and interpreting emotions and stuff, no, they found other ways to figure it all out, so resiliency, resiliency, resiliency. And my teachers are the same way, they have figured it out. They are coping extremely well with this new reality in front of them.  

Natalie Danner: That’s great! 

Brent McBride: I’m really cautiously optimistic. 

Natalie Danner: So lastly, what have you learned from leading a center during COVID that you anticipate using maybe in the future? 

Brent McBride: Probably the takeaway message from me as director in a leadership role, is that notion of resiliency. As a program, we’ve been very, very resilient. We have figured it out. We are doing things now that, you know, six months ago if you would’ve asked my teachers if we would be doing this, they would say no, we could never do that. And I think it puts it all in perspective. Take it one step at a time; if it doesn’t work, step back, reboot. You can figure out other ways to do it. You just have to keep the end goal in mind, which is what kind of educational and care experiences do we want these children to have during very challenging situations. 

Natalie Danner: Resiliency, that’s really important to remember. So, thank you so much Brent for being our guest on the Illinois Early Learning Podcast. For our listeners, remember that this podcast was the first in a three-part series on childcare during COVID-19. Part 2 will focus on childcare during COVID-19 from the perspective of an early childhood educator, and Part 3 will focus on childcare during COVID-19 from a parent’s perspective, so we look forward to delving deeper into this topic. Until next time thank you and keep early learning at the forefront. 

You have just heard a podcast by the Illinois Early Learning Project. For more information please visit us at illinoisearlylearning.org, where you can find evidence-based reliable information on early care and education for parents, caregivers, and teachers of young children. Thanks for listening and for helping the children in your home, classroom, and community have a strong start in their early learning. 

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About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Parents / Family
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2020