On this podcast, we talk with Haley and Bob about the impact of COVID-19 on childcare and their family. These parents have three young children who attend the Child Development Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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 third podcast in a three-part series, so be sure to be on the lookout for Part 1 and 2 that have previously been recorded. Today we are joined by Haley and Bob, parents at the Child Development Laboratory at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s campus. The CDL is a National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)–accredited early childhood program and lab program for 160 children ages infant through preschool. Thank you so much for being here with us today, Haley and Bob!
Haley: Thanks for having us.
Bob: Thanks for having us.
Natalie Danner: So today we are eager to hear from both of you as parents because our listeners want to know your perspective during COVID-19 for childcare. If you could start us off by telling us a little about your child or children that attend the center, such as their age, character traits, and interests.
Haley: Sure. We have three children. Our oldest is Maeve; she is 4. She’ll be 5 in about a month. We have Julia, who is 2, and then Charlie, who is just about 8 months. Maeve is definitely our sort of inquisitive child. She’s really into learning. She’s a verbal kid, real busy; right now she’s really into art and creating things. So, she keeps us busy and on our toes. She loves school. Often will say to me, Mom, don’t pick me up so early, because she wants as much school time as possible. Julia is a little bit different than Maeve. A little quieter, a little more sensitive. School’s a little more of a harder sell right now for our 2-year-old but really likes playing with her babies, listening to music, and making little Charlie laugh. Charlie is just sort of our happy 8-month-old who likes to laugh at his older sisters.
Natalie Danner: So, you have a couple of children. Which ones are the ones that have attended CDL? Or have all of them?
Haley: All three are actually currently enrolled. Julia’s been there since she started as an infant. Charlie started when he was 3 months old. And Maeve joined when she was just about to turn 2.
Natalie Danner: So, what happened to your childcare at CDL as COVID-19 began in Illinois last spring? Can you walk us through some of the changes that took place?
Haley: Yeah it actually sort of just blew up overnight. One day they were going to school and the next day they were home. It actually coincided almost exactly with the birth of Charlie. So, it was crazy time. I was on maternity leave. So, it ended up being all of us at home with an infant, a brand-new baby, sort of hunkering down for three months. We, gosh, I mean it took both of us to care for three of them all day.
You know, Maeve, like I said, she’s a really busy kid and really enjoyed the engagement and interaction of her peers and her teachers all day. Oh my gosh, we’d wake up in the morning, we’d have to try and make a schedule of what we were going to do for the day. Everything from craft time to story time to walk time to snack time. We did our best, but we had no back up childcare. Our families are not close by. So, it really was just us, sort of getting through and, of course, Charlie had all of the newborn needs. So, it was busy.
Bob: Yeah, I’ll jump in and just say that the other piece that was really interesting about that period was that Haley had expected it to be a maternity leave. And she expected it to be the time that she got to spend bonding with Charlie exclusively. And the other two, Maeve and Julia, were expected to be at CDL at that time. It was literally the week after we got back from the hospital. You know, actually, he had to go back for a treatment for jaundice and then you know a couple of days later is when the stay-at-home order came down from Governor Pritzker and CDL closed.
And all of our lives, you know professionally, got thrown into kind of interesting improvisation that happened last spring. You know so, kind of it was like this interesting gear shift and improvisation that especially Haley had to do. With losing that time with Charlie and having to sort of you know figure out how we would the two of us manage our very busy other two kids along with the new baby. It was really intense. It was quite a moment.
Natalie Danner: That sounds like a lot of different moving pieces, for sure. During that time, you said the CDL was closed for a period of time. But there was also a period of time where they were unable to serve regularly enrolled families, but they were serving essential workers. Did you go back at that point or did you go back after that point?
Haley: So, the timing ended up just being coincidentally, I went back to work on June 1. And I believe that was the day that all of the students were able to come back in some fashion. So, we didn’t use the essential worker piece, although we may need to use that in the future if things change. But yeah, our kids went back on June 1, which just happened to be the day that I went back from maternity leave.
Bob: Just to note, Haley does work at a hospital and so that was. It was going to be, at the time when we were planning, Haley’s return to work, we were going to bring back Maeve and Julia to a school that had just a handful of students. And then the new regime came in and everybody was welcomed back to CDL.
Natalie Danner: That kind of worked out well for your family at that point in time. So, I’m glad that that was something that not only did they have the opportunity for emergency childcare for essential workers, but they also kind of quickly came back to that point where they were open to all families.
Natalie Danner: So, I do know that in CDL, that virtual learning was available for a period of time as well. Did your child or your children participate in that part of the schooling?
Haley: They did. And it was about as sweet as you can believe. It ended up being the highlight of the day. It was just this maybe 45-minute period where the kids were on a Zoom with their classmates and their teachers. Oh, it was really something. Just to see these little people interacting with their peers, who they missed. And especially their teachers, who they really missed, they had such a connection with. We, as parents, really enjoyed that time. And I think the kids did too. I mean, you know, they’re little so they were not always so verbal on the call. And the teachers did such a such an amazing job trying to, you know, lead group time and ask questions and do singing.
It was remarkable and really wonderful to see. And even, both Maeve and Julia’s teachers sent them little videos saying that we miss you. And to this day, they watch those videos on our phones because they just love them so much. The connection was so important, so vital, I think during that time of isolation, where they were so used to being with people all day.
Natalie Danner: Yeah that is one of the questions that our listeners and our readers really have a lot of concerns about is that: virtual learning for very young children? How does that work? But it sounds like there were a lot of successes from your perspective as a parent.
Haley: Yeah right, I mean I don’t know how well they would have learned math over the Zoom [laughs], but definitely it was wonderful. Like I said, the connection was vital, and it really perked them up. I mean it was, I would like to choke up watching these Zooms half the time. Because it was just so sweet. You could see the real love from the teachers. They so missed the kids. And just the reading stories to them and singing songs. It was, it was beautiful. It was really, really something great.
Bob: And our kids are not at the age where sitting at a screen is not all that interesting. Well maybe they are kind of peculiar in this connection. It actually goes to one of the observations that we’ve made many times about our particular experience in quarantine. Which, we had sort of read in the media, and heard in the media, a lot of parents expressing concerns about oh there is too much screen time, there is too much screen time.
Well even our 4-year-old doesn’t seem, for whatever reason, to have an attention span for shows, or for video games, or for whatever, and we were actually really gratified that she took to the Zoom conferences and had fun with those because so often, I mean you know. Kind of in spite, you know, of our own instincts, we would be trying to kind of encourage her. Can you take a half hour with the computer here, Maeve? Yeah anyway, the Zooms turned out to be such a special thing for her as well as for her sister, the 2-year-old, Julia.
Natalie Danner: That’s great to hear. I know that’s a concern with many people to think about screen time and young children as well. To have that idea of screen time as connection, versus screen time kind of as a babysitter experience, is a very different perspective of screen time. And I think that’s really important, is maintaining those connections to those really, loved ones when you think about. When you are talking about the teachers of young children, really those special relationships that children have with those adults and keeping that connection alive. Because young children don’t really understand when things get closed very quickly and they don’t have that opportunity to talk to their teacher or their friends anymore, so glad to hear about that. So, when you did go back, it sounds like you went back in the summer, is that right?
Natalie Danner: So how did you make that decision to go back?
Haley: Oh gosh. It wasn’t so easy. Although we didn’t really feel like we really had that many options. You know I needed to return to work, and it was just sort of time. We had to do something to help with childcare. We were nervous about it. There were some concerns. Of course, we didn’t want our kids to get sick, and we didn’t want our kids to make anyone else sick. You know, lots of kind of thinking about it and hoping for the best.
Bob: Yeah, and we had to weigh, having spent the first three months or however long it was of the quarantine period, together, taking care of them. We had to sort of weigh the, I mean we did have the opportunity. We are in a lucky situation relative to my job. I work at the university as a professor, and so you know the summer months are relatively flexible in terms of obligations and places I have to be at specific times. So, there was the opportunity to keep them home longer, if we felt very strongly about that.
So, we did really have to think it all through. But it would have been so difficult, right. Not only difficult, but I don’t think it would have been good for them. They had really run, kind of, into their limit. They had reached their limit of, I think the isolation of it, the sort of monotony of it. The confinement of the springtime for them had taken such a toll. That really made the decision a bit clear for us. It was as much as anything else, a sense that they needed to get back to school, they had missed it so much. And they missed their friends and especially their teachers. We can’t emphasize enough, how much they love CDL. They love those teachers. And so that was a really big part of our decision in addition to all the health concerns and everything else.
Natalie Danner: So, tell us a little about what was new and different about the operations of the center than before COVID-19.
Haley: Well I mean, of course, the masking was a big thing. You know we were concerned with how well our 2-year-old would do with that. But they’re amazing, they do really well, kids amaze you. They just put their masks on every morning. You know, and there’s safety precautions in place. So, like, parents don’t go into the classroom, we sort of just drop at the door, which I found really hard the first couple of times. We’re so used to sort of spending some time in the morning saying hi to the teachers, getting the kids settled. Now it just like, “okay you’re off.” So that was a big adjustment.
You know, the observation booths are closed. If you are not familiar with the Child Development Lab, they have observation booths so that the U of I students, and people doing research, and parents can observe their kids when they are at school, and they don’t know you are watching them, which is like a totally amazing perspective to get. So, I really miss that as a parent. But you know I mean for the kids, I feel like not that much is different. I mean they don’t share playgrounds with other groups. They still see their friends. Their activities are still very similar. They still have their recess and their group time. I mean they wear masks and wash their hands a lot. It’s really the parents who I think have the biggest adjustment because, to decrease the spread, we’re really on the outskirts.
Natalie Danner: When you’re thinking about your concerns before you came back. You had a few. How were those concerns handled?
Haley: I mean, well! I mean, yeah, the administration I feel like at CDL, they’re great, they’re really responsible, they provide lots of emails and updates as they get them. I think they are doing absolutely everything they can to keep everybody safe, and that’s reassuring to us. As much as I’d love to walk Julia into her classroom every day and make sure she is settled, I understand that that’s not the safest thing to do. And I think Brent and Lynn and all the people who make these decisions, though they may be hard decisions to make, they are safe. So, I think that knowing that they have the best interest of everybody in the front of their mind, we feel like our kids are in a good place. And everybody’s doing their best. We’re just sort of doing our best.
Natalie Danner: That is true. We are all doing our best. And sometimes our best is to change too. As guidance has changed from the state, and from the public health department, I know that CDL has also had to change, too. And I think that flexibility from parents, teachers, and the directors has been pretty amazing to hear about, at least from my perspective talking to the teacher, the director, and now you as parents. What our listeners don’t know is that we have a third person on the line here, actually a fourth person. And it’s your youngest. So, tell us why your youngest is here today.
Bob: So Charlie, I’m holding him, trying to bounce him and keep him quiet here. He’s smiling back at me, just having fun. He is home until next Friday out of precaution because there was an exposure in his classroom, in his little infant classroom. So, this is the second time this has happened since we’ve been back. It happened to Maeve sometime toward the end of the summer, I think. And so he’s home and the classroom is shut. And all the teachers and the students are isolated until the end of this period, which goes two weeks from the date of the exposure. I think this exposure was picked up like so many things at U of I, through the testing regime that everybody is on.
Natalie Danner: So that also must be a challenge to you, as parents, to sometimes also have an additional child home with you that you expected to be in childcare. But at the same time, I would expect that that would be a relief that the entire center is not closed. That it’s just limited to that one exposure in one classroom.
Haley: Yeah, and I think CDL makes a real effort to keep those classes sort of apart so that is how they can do it. So yeah, Charlie’s class being home is better for us than having Maeve and Julia also home for two weeks. Although, we are acutely aware that that could change any day. Every time the phone rings, it’s like, is it Lynn? We know that everything is day by day, moment by moment. That’s how we have to live. That’s how everybody is living, so. Yeah, it’s not easy. It’s going to be a tough week and a half with our schedules, but this is the world we’re living in.
Natalie Danner: It is the world we’re living in. Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you wanted to share about childcare and families during COVID-19?
Bob: I think what we’ve reflected on many times as we’ve been thinking about this conversation, in advance, is just how you know grateful we are to the CDL and to how they have managed this. From obviously the period of when our kids were not at the CDL and they were making every effort to kind of keep some kind of continuity going. And again, that contact that they gave to the kids through the Zoom meetings, which as Haley said were “just so sweet.” But then coming back and sort of managing it as professionally. And they’re a really special group of people and really great at what they do. From the teachers to the administrators, we are just really grateful for them.
Haley: And I think they are also really phenomenal at keeping the anxiety down. Because as a parent to three kids during a pandemic, to three kids, during a pandemic, you know I can really have some anxious days. And I think just every time I walk into the building, everyone just seems calm and confident and “we’ve got this” and “we are doing our best” and “we know what we are doing.” And it just feels really good, because dropping your three kids off at a group care setting during a pandemic is anxiety-producing for me.
I’m just really grateful to have the Child Development Lab as the place I get to send my kids, because I just think they’re phenomenal. You know, Bob and I joke that the best thing about moving to Champaign-Urbana was getting to send our kids to CDL. We really are grateful, and we feel for all the parents out there that are just getting by. Getting by.
Natalie Danner: It just really shows you how important childcare is and how important those teachers and the directors and the centers are. So that’s really something that’s come of this COVID-19 pandemic. And for the final question, do you see any positive changes that have come out of COVID and childcare?
Haley: Yeah, I mean, I would say, you know, again it just makes me reflect on how lucky we are to have such a beautiful, wonderful situation with CDL. And how important, like you said, teachers and administrators are to life. And I’m so grateful for that team over there. I think COVID-19 personally made me realize how important family is, and you know we miss seeing our family and our friends. You know, we don’t have that sort of team, that helps us parent. You know we don’t get to see the grandparents and get to see our friends who help us have fun on the weekends. So, you know we’ve just been learning a lot about parenting alone. But yeah, I think it’s been, I think there have been a lot of moments that are really special too, so.
Bob: Just to build on what Haley is saying there, if in terms of a silver lining of this. If this helps people in their awareness of the importance of childcare and then begins conversations that need to happen more broadly throughout our society about how to do a better job at this. Because we are in this really lucky position. But obviously we understand that and hopefully this has just made people, like us and everyone else, aware of you know not everyone has these lucky situations. So, it is a really important political conversation and just conversation about our society that I think this has sparked.
Haley: Yeah, for sure.
Natalie Danner: So, I want to thank both of you for being on our podcast, the Illinois Early Learning Podcast, and for our listeners, remember that this podcast was the third in a three-part series on childcare during COVID-19. Part 1 focused on childcare during COVID from the perspective of a director. Part 2 focused on the perspective of a teacher. And now Part 3 focused on the perspective of parents. So, we delved really deep into this topic of COVID and childcare. Until next time, thank you and keep early learning at the forefront.
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