Photos courtesy: Verna Esposito

As some camps open up in CT and NY on June 29, and childcare centers that were closed during quarantine re-open, kids in our area are being reunited with peers—and introduced to new protocols. Even if parents have decided to keep kids home through the summer, they may be looking towards a return to school in September with apprehension, in terms of helping kids adapt to safety steps like masks. And in addition to COVID-19 protocols, shy kids may also face stress related to socializing after so much social distancing.

To help understand what kids may go through and how to help them, we spoke to Verna Esposito, the Director at Little Friends Child Care & Early Education in Greenwich, which stayed open through the pandemic. She has been helping kids readjust to the “new normal” for months. While each camp, daycare center, and preschool may adapt the protocols in a slightly different way, her advice provides guidance to any parents thinking about these changes in their child’s lives:

Can you please share a bit about how Little Friends stayed open throughout the pandemic?
We decided pretty early on that we wanted to make every effort to stay open for the families who needed us. When the Governor and OEC communicated that they hoped that childcare programs would remain open to provide access for essential workers it reinforced our decision. We closed temporarily in the beginning for a quarantine period, to deep clean our space and to get the additional supplies we needed (masks, a micro-fogging machine and infrared thermometers) to provide enhanced health and safety protocols. We knew that for families who trusted us especially now, that we would need to create a safe cocoon and we have been able to do that with enhanced protocols, careful attention to details like frequent hand washing for everyone and plenty of time for activities out in the fresh air and sunshine. Our teachers have been incredible throughout this situation; their responsibility has been taken to a whole new level, but they haven’t missed a beat and their welcoming happy attitudes make the children excited to join the fun.

Why was this important to you—to provide that option to parents?
Well there were a couple of reasons. First, I know that grandparents are often the back-up plan for childcare, but in this situation I knew that it would place families in a very difficult situation because of the higher risk of severe illness for people over 60; I worried about parents who don’t have local family support and about the reality of trying to work at home and care for a young child or children. I also wanted to provide as much consistency and routine for the children in a time of uncertainty that we could.

 What are the biggest differences for young kids during this time‚ that might be strange and even scary?
I would say the two things that require the most adjustment are the adults wearing masks and the drop off and pick up at the door instead of in the classrooms. Children look to the grown-ups faces for emotional cues and by covering our mouths we are covering our expression and when we are speaking with our faces covered, the language is disconnected. This can be unsettling for young children, so we knew we would need to find ways to help the children feel comfortable with it. For example, when the children arrive, we greet them first through the glass door with our masks down, so that they can see our smiles and throughout the day when we are far enough away we will take our masks down to communicate. show the children our smiles and let them make the connection between our mouths and the language they hear. We have ordered a special kind of mask that has a clear panel over the mouth, but things are taking a little longer to ship right now so we are using these other techniques.

Separation at the door is an individual experience—some children are perfectly fine with it, others need extra support and we feel like it is important to balance our expectations and respect individual responses. There have been situations where it was too difficult at first for children to be dropped off at the door and in those cases, parents come into the building, they wear their masks, wash hands upon arrival in the classroom and limit their time in the classroom. Some children and honestly, some parents will need to be able to do that to feel best supported in their transition back to school. 

What are some ways to prepare them before the start of camp and/or the return to school, in terms of talking about changes like masks, and other protocols?
It’s important to remember that children are social sponges; they read our emotions kind of like a how-to guide to how they should feel and children’s receptive language develops first and faster than expressive language, so even very young children are taking in what is being said around them. If adults are talking to each other about how nervous they are, how strange it is going to feel, or about how they think a child will react to the changes, children are receiving those messages, even on the periphery.

Children do best with the truth and reassurance,  so I advise parents to say things like “When we go back to school, these things will look and feel different, but it is okay” and they can list a couple of things that will be different. Children will recall this information when they are in the new routine, helping them not to be completely caught off guard. Like all people, children become comfortable with new things by experiencing them and it may be helpful to practice some of the new things they will experience in a pretend play scenario and by demonstrating some things that will be new. Let children see what the masks look like on; show them that your face and smile is still under the mask by taking it off and on. Zoom or Facetime experiences aren’t the same as in person experiences of course, but arranging those in advance with teachers at school can help children see what their teachers will look and sound like when they have a mask on, then off, too.

For older children, role playing situations they may encounter will give them the chance to practice solving problems they may be worried about. Parents can spark these conversations and develop strategies with their child by reading through the camp materials aloud together, pausing frequently to see if their child seems concerned or has a question, then addressing it by practicing.

 

If you have a child who tends to lean towards the shyer side, what things can you do/say to help them reintegrate socially after being apart from friends for months?
Again, it is really important to respect and respond to the individual. A child who is cautious by nature, who takes their time to warm up socially, will need time to become reacquainted and comfortable. It’s important that teachers help these children to readjust by understanding that they will need time, by checking in with them throughout the day and gently encouraging their increased participation with others. Again, a pre-reintroduction by video Facetime or Zoom, for a brief session with other classmates who will be in attendance may break the ice. Talking about the friends in their classrooms, using descriptive language and reminding children of their past experiences with their classroom friends can be helpful too. Parents should ask which classroom friends will be in attendance and talk about those children. For instance, “Emma who has the Minnie Mouse lunch bag like yours will be at school too and so will Thomas and that’s fun because you both love to play with the dinosaurs.”

 

What are some behaviors or signs that they are still adjusting and may need some extra encouragement?
Even when children can’t or don’t express these feelings; they might exhibit them in other ways like with changes to their appetite; sleep habits or by being especially emotional or needy. What they need the most is reassurance, consistency and time to readjust. Separation from parents is hard for children and especially hard after this concentrated and lengthy time spent at home together. This is further complicated during a time when parents might be conflicted about sending their child back to school and these normal separation anxieties can feel worse than ever to a parent. But it is a normal and actually healthy response for children to feel this way—change is hard. Teachers should provide progress reports by note, e-mail or call throughout the re-adjustment to give parents information they need to know that progress is happening. Otherwise from the parents perspective if you drop off a child who is crying and asking you not to leave them, how would you know they weren’t in that same condition all day?

 

Do some kids simply just adapt very quickly?
Yes, just like cautious children, some children are unflappable, go with the flow kind of people. They come back like they never left and pick up where they left off. But, that doesn’t mean these children don’t have their own feelings and responses to these changes—they may just exhibit them differently. Children who have mastered toileting may have a regression period of accidents, children who have always gotten along well in groups may demonstrate some difficulty being reintroduced to a group environment.

Verna with family (second from left) including her two daughters, also at LF

If parents have concerns, what is the best way to approach a counselor/administrator/etc. with them?
Parents need to know that someone is available to hear and respond to their questions and concerns. At LF I have been doing a weekly update by email about everything from attendance to updates from the Office of Early Childhood to keep parents informed, teachers write daily experience reports for parents for each child, my email and mobile number are open to families and teachers 24 hours a day. I would encourage parents to ask who will be available and responsible as a communication conduit for parents and teachers, how they are best reached, how often and in what form can they can expect to receive updates about their child, changes to protocols and practices, illness reports (any information parents should and want to have about their child’s program).

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