On this podcast, we talk with Kathryn Pannbacker about the impact of COVID-19 on childcare and her work as an early childhood educator. Pannbacker is a preschool head teacher at the Child Development Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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’re talking about childcare during COVID-19. This is the second podcast in a three-part series, so be sure to be on the lookout for Part 3 as it is released. Today we are joined by Kathryn of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Kathryn is a head teacher at the Child Development Laboratory on campus, a National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)–accredited early childhood program and lab school for 160 children ages infant through preschool. Thanks so much for being with us today Kathryn.
Kathryn: Thank you for having me!
Natalie Danner: So today we are eager to hear from you as one of the teachers from the Child Development Lab at the University of Illinois because our listeners want to know how you continued operating during COVID-19 and some of the lessons you learned. So, first Kathryn, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How long have you worked at the Child Development Lab and what age group do you work with?
Kathryn: I am currently in my fourth year at the CDL, and I work with preschool-age children. However, my first year I was here, I was a head teacher in the toddler and 2’s transition classroom. But then the following year, I moved up to preschool, and I’ve been here ever since.
Natalie Danner: Wonderful, so if you could bring me back, tell us the story of last spring after COVID-19 began in Illinois.
Kathryn: Sure, so on a personal note, I had just gotten back from the vacation with my family to Disney. I had just gotten back that week, and I think it was on Friday March 13 that we found out that Governor Pritzker was pretty much shutting things down. Dr. McBride had come to each classroom to let us know what was happening. We were told that we were still to report to work the following week. It was also spring break for the university that following week, so we saw a slight decline in our numbers of children, but we weren’t sure if that was due to COVID-19 hitting the area or if it was just families were going on vacation.
So, like I said, we saw a slight decline, but nothing major. Pretty soon after that we were told that we were closing down the CDL building and all classrooms were moving over to the ECDL, and the ECDL had applied for the emergency childcare license through DCFS, and we were only serving children of essential employees at that point. Because of that, our enrollment dropped significantly because a lot of our families were not considered essential workers. None of our three infant classrooms at that point had any children enrolled. We had cut down from three toddler classrooms to one, and even that toddler classroom was not at full enrollment during the emergency license. We had two 2’s classrooms and then three preschool classrooms. All of those were combined into one classroom, and that classroom itself was not even fully enrolled at that point. So, the teaching staff was eventually combined, and we basically had a rotating schedule of when we were working in the classroom.
Natalie Danner: Wow, a lot of changes happened when COVID-19 began. So that was mainly what was happening in the springtime, is that right?
Natalie Danner: So, as you were providing childcare for essential workers in the ECDL, and when you say ECDL, just for our listeners, that’s the Early Childhood Development Lab, so there are two buildings on the University of Illinois campus and they’re not too far apart either.
Kathryn: No, it’s all like one building.
Natalie Danner: So, there’s just two buildings, one is called ECDL and one is called CDL, just for our listeners to understand that a little bit better. So, it sounds like ECDL was providing a really great experience for those essential workers. But what about the other families? How did you connect with those other families that were previously a part of CDL and ECDL?
Kathryn: So, all staff met daily to discuss any changes that were happening, and we had met as head teachers one day and we were talking about ways we could still engage our families that were not attending ECDL daily, or that were not considered as essential workers. We brought up ideas such as performing Zoom calls with the children or putting together packets of activities that the children could take home or that the parents could pick up, so that they were still engaged and learning. So, they weren’t being forgotten about, we didn’t want our children to feel like they were not a part of our classroom anymore.
Natalie Danner: So, it sounds like virtual learning was something that was quite new for a lot of preschool and toddler teachers out there.
Kathryn: Oh, yes.
Natalie Danner: What type of planning and preparation did you have to do to kind of make that work for yourselves as teachers and providers?
Kathryn: Well honestly, I think a lot of the teachers here had to learn what Zoom was. We had never used Zoom before, and it was definitely a learning process. I had families willing to talk me through it. Most of them were professors that were learning it as well and learning how to use that in their courses, so they helped me. And then I passed that knowledge down to my staff. It definitely took some practice, but I feel like we’re professionals now. We wanted to continue with things that we were already learning about in the classroom, and so in order to do that we had to brainstorm what that was going to look like on Zoom. How could we still teach and engage these children in a different format?
Natalie Danner: So, can you give us an example of some of the types of activities that you did with young children and their families over Zoom?
Kathryn: Anything that we did on Zoom was mainly a type of activity that we would do with our group time or circle time. So, we wanted to remain consistent in the routines of how that went, so we would always start off with our good morning song that we did every single day. And then after that like one time we did an activity about plants, so we had sent home like an art project for them to work on and so then they would share their art project and talk about the different parts of a plant, and where they put it and glued it on their paper, and what those parts function for and things like that.
And then at the end of Zoom, we would always end with our goodbye song that we would end our day with so they knew that we were coming to a close. But I do want to point out like before we got to that point where we could actually teach lessons it was definitely more like a daily show and tell. All the children were very excited about showing their dog or showing their rooms or anything that they had at home because we had never seen that part of their life before. So that took some getting used to for sure.
Natalie Danner: Were there any challenges that you really thought of when you’re talking about virtual learning, so you’re talking about some of the successes, and it sounds like the consistency is part of it that’s key in that there’s consistency between the in-classroom experience and the virtual experience. What about some of the challenges? Did you have challenges with perhaps some of the families or even some of the children?
Kathryn: Yes, we did once those children figured out how to unmute themselves. Oh, the interruptions! Getting through the lesson was challenging at times, but last year in my class, I had one child that had sensory processing disorder and it was difficult for him to participate on Zoom because of all the background noise. It was really distracting to him, it scared him, and so a lot of times he would pop in at the beginning, but then within 5 to 10 minutes he was gone. So that was really challenging, I think. Just being able to say hi and see his face and hear his voice and then he was gone, so we were really struggling to find a way to connect with some of the children that were having difficulty so we would do one-on-one Zooms with them instead, instead of like a whole group, to accommodate their needs.
Natalie Danner: That’s a great way of really overcoming that kind of challenge, and I bet it’s something that you didn’t anticipate in the first place. So a lot of different things were going on so for you as a teacher. Were there some teachers that were doing in-person work with the families who were families of essential workers and then some teachers who were providing virtual learning opportunities or did you mix and match that type of work?
Kathryn: That’s exactly right, so when it was our day to work in the classroom, that was our focus. So, if it was my day to be in the classroom with the children, that was all I did all day long. But then on the days that I was not in the classroom, that’s when I would schedule the Zoom meetings or packet pickup days with my enrolled children from my personal class. Because at the ECDL, like I said, all preschool classrooms were combined so some of those children that were there were not ones from my previous class from the year. So, I wanted to have that time to connect with my children. They’re all my children, but you know what I mean. With my current class.
Natalie Danner: Absolutely. So, this fall was a little bit different, ECDL and CDL slowly reopened to all of the families, not just families of essential workers. So when you’re talking about reopening at almost full capacity, what kinds of fears did you have before that reopening period occurred?
Kathryn: Oh, there was a lot of fear, not just with me but my staff and my other coworkers. Our numbers, obviously our ratios were going up. We were worried that we were going to be possibly, there is more chance of us being exposed to the virus because we had more children, we had more families. There are just more bodies coming into our buildings. And not only that but students were coming back this fall, our student workers, researchers, students that were here to do their lab work. So, I think that’s really where the fear came from, just how was this going to work. Are the changes in the policies and protocols that we put in place, are these going to work? So just working through all of that I feel I mean I feel better now obviously, and I think a lot of us do, but it was a scary time.
Natalie Danner: I understand that so many teachers are really experiencing a lot of different fears and emotions right now, now that programs are opening back up and are considering opening. So how does your classroom and the center as a whole look different now as compared to before COVID-19?
Kathryn: Well obviously the staff and all the children ages 2 and up are required to wear masks. Throughout the day the only time you will not see us wearing masks is during mealtime or rest time; the children, the teachers are always wearing the masks. Even outside teachers still wear our masks. Not just with the mask aspect, but we change our shoes. The children have home shoes and school shoes. So, when they arrive in the morning, they will change out of their home shoes, put their school shoes on and wear those throughout the day.
They get their temperatures checked; we all do when we come in the building. We have our screening process, the questions that we ask: Have you traveled internationally, are you experiencing symptoms of COVID, or have you been around anybody who has been exposed or is experiencing symptoms? So those protocols are in place. And then we used to send all of their nap time blankets home and pillows and stuffed animals, all those things home weekly; those now all stay at school, and the teachers do their laundry, not transporting those things back and forth.
We also used to be able to mix classrooms. When we went outside, we could be on the playground together. Our cubby room is separate from our classroom and we used to be able to at the end of the day wait in the cubby rooms together waiting for parents to pick up, and we cannot do that anymore. Not only that but even our playground time has been cut short because our drop-off times are from 7:30 to 9:30 so we have to be in our classroom during that time.
It used to be where we would go outside because parents could walk through the classroom to come drop their child off. They can’t do that anymore and they can’t do that for pickup either where we used to be outside until pickup you know? We have to remain in our classroom, and somebody has to come and get the child and take the child to the parent, or the family member, or whoever is picking up. So, there have been a lot of changes that we’ve gotten accustomed to now, but it was a big transition for us.
Natalie Danner: Sounds like a big transition for both teachers and for children too. So, when we talked about children, what were their reactions to all of these changed requirements?
Kathryn: Honestly, I think they adapted pretty well; they’re pretty resilient in that. I haven’t really noticed a whole lot of changes like in behavior, demeanor, character, anything like that. There are some children who you could tell weren’t used to wearing those masks prior to coming to school every day, so they’ve had to learn how to put them on and take them off by themselves and we’re still working on that with a few children. Parents have been really helpful in working with us, but I think they’re pretty good about understanding why, when you ask them why do we have all these changes? I had a little girl today tell me “because of the coronavirus,” and she’s 3. I mean she understands, she gets it. So, I think they’re pretty resilient.
Natalie Danner: Children are resilient. It’s amazing to see how they cope and adapt to these new changes and just take them as, this is what we do in school, right?
Natalie Danner: So, I was wondering, do you have a particularly noteworthy story of a child in your class that’s participated with you during COVID-19?
Kathryn: I do. I had this child with me last year in the pre-COVID, and I feel like he was very much like a follower. He imitated a lot of behaviors, good and bad, but he just wasn’t very independent in his thinking, and then the children that he normally imitated were not part of that essential worker group, so those children did not attend, which kind of forced this boy to come out of his comfort zone and make choices on his own and decide what he wanted to do and explain his choices. You know it wasn’t just because so and so did it, I wanted to do it, too. And I feel like he really came out of his shell and he grew, and he blossomed during this. So, if anything could come out of it, there is some positive stuff.
Natalie Danner: Absolutely. Thinking about the teaching aspect of your job, which is the majority of your job, how did you teach the young children the new procedures that you just spoke about like social distancing or with health and safety procedures?
Kathryn: I’m if I’m being honest, we always wash their hands frequently anyway, that wasn’t anything new, and as far as social distancing goes, we used to let the children pretty much go wherever they wanted during our choices time. And this year we shifted to a chart and we limited the number of children that could be in each area of the classroom during their free choices. So that was new, and that did take a lot of practice for them to understand, okay well there’s only four children playing the block area right now, so I need to go find somewhere where I can put my little name stick, and see where there’s a spot.
And you’ll still see the children waiting around for their turn instead of making a choice while they wait, so there’s still some talking them through that process. We did a lot of social stories and a lot of discussion during group time, so I think consistency is key obviously with anything that is new to them. And starting the new year with all these new things in place helped versus it being in the middle of the year and then changing completely what we had just taught them, like it was in March.
Natalie Danner: And it sounds like that the spring was almost a really good time for you to kind of test out some of these new procedures and policies with a smaller group size so that you could kind of figure things out and then when you brought back the whole group you were more solid in how you’re teaching things but also what you’re expecting of children. So I think that was an unexpected way of doing things, but a positive too.
Kathryn: I agree.
Natalie Danner: When you’re talking about the children’s reaction and you said that they were very resilient and that they were just kind of going with the flow with this, was there anything else about the children’s reaction to these new policies and procedures that surprised you?
Kathryn: I was really worried; I was really worried about the mask thing for the children that were coming back. I thought, oh my gosh this is going to be a disaster, they’re going to be wearing it on their head, they’re going to be throwing it across the room like a slingshot, whatever they can come up with they’re going to do. So, I was just really shocked that they were comfortable wearing it as long as they’re required to throughout the day, and we have not had any issues with that. That was my biggest fear.
Natalie Danner: Remind us again about the age group that you were with during this time.
Kathryn: In the spring, I was with ages 2–5, and then when we reopened this fall, I am now with ages 3–5.
Natalie Danner: It’s wonderful to hear that even very young children can do these health and safety protocols with efficacy. They can really think about all of the procedures that are taught to them and just take them in hand and go with them whether it’s masks or hand-washing or social distancing, something new to do.
Kathryn: When they line up, I mean they automatically just put their hand straight out in front of them to make sure they’re not touching the person in front of them when we line up to come in or transition from place to place without even being told now. And they understand why that’s necessary so that we’re not that close to people, you know, that social distancing aspect of the whole thing.
Natalie Danner: Is there anything else that you’d like to share about early childhood education and teachers during COVID-19?
Kathryn: If I’m being honest, I think we’ve become more flexible and empathetic towards not just each other but to families and children. We’ve learned to adjust to the ever-changing protocols and procedures. I think during the spring and early summer, things were changing daily and we had to be flexible and figure out ways to implement those changes into our programming. We’ve also had to collaborate more with one another and learn how to understand each person’s needs and how to be supportive.
Natalie Danner: I think that’s really important and something that we can really carry over moving forward even after COVID-19, right?
Kathryn: Hopefully soon!
Natalie Danner: We all hope so. So, thank you so much Kathryn for being our guest on the Illinois Early Learning Podcast.
Kathryn: Thank you.
Natalie Danner: For our listeners, remember that this podcast was the second in a three-part series on childcare during COVID-19. Part 1 focused on childcare during COVID from the perspective of a director, 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 and until next time thank you and keep early learning on the forefront.
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