Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Fort Wayne in mid-March, child care has become a constant source of worry for parents torn between working to keep their jobs and social distancing to safeguard their family's health.
Now, as the nation goes back-to-school amidst rising COVID case numbers, local child care providers, educators, and parents alike are feeling the strain—particularly on the city's Southeast side.
“I don’t know how I’m going to deal with it all,” says Sabreen Taqateq, a mom who lives in Southeast and an assistant teacher at South Wayne Elementary School. “I’m thinking about: What if one of the students gets the virus, and then I get sick and my kids will get sick. If I want my kids to do remote learning, I won’t be able to work. To be honest, I need the money. So if I say I don’t want to work, I’m going to lose my job, and I don’t want to lose my job because I like the staff and my manager.”
Sabreen Taqateq, a mom and assistant teacher, with her three children, Jamal, Tuleen, and Talia.
Taqateq is not alone in the struggle of deciding whether to send her kids to school this year, how to provide an income for her family, or the best way to keep her kids safe amidst a shapeshifting global pandemic. Parents and teachers alike are struggling to adapt to the new normal of COVID-19 amidst what feels like daily changes in policies and procedures in the fight to reopen the nation's economy.
As school starts on this shaky ground, a local teacher, who would prefer to remain anonymous, says that managing it all is a heavy load for faculty to take on—on top of the usual strain of beginning a new school year.
"We are teaching our in-person students, and also our online students," she says. "But we have to teach them separately, for safety reasons, so it is like we are teaching two classrooms every day. I’m honestly exhausted and don’t know how I’m going to manage it all, but we have to figure it out.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, shuttering nonessential businesses and services across the U.S. for a period of time, the most "essential" jobs in society have risen to the surface of public consciousness. Residents across the U.S. are becoming more aware of how essential child care is to the national and global economy. As families lose these services, they lose the ability to work.
Madeleine Baker, CEO of Early Childhood Alliance (ECA),
believes the public is starting to realize that child care workers and educators are highly dedicated to their jobs, yet underpaid and underappreciated.
"We have seen through this pandemic that child care is an essential service sector," she says. "It is so critical that we provide these services to the community.”
The ECA invests in early childhood education by providing quality child care through their local learning centers and programs.
Now, the pandemic is pushing the dedication of local educators and child care professionals to new levels.
"In light of their own concerns and fears, they stand in front and provide a service that is needed," Baker says. "I think, oftentimes, communities, in general, tend to overlook that. They are exposed in every which way, and in light of their own concerns and fears, they continue to provide for our community."
As Baker points out, educators aren't the only ones figuring out a new normal and risking their own health to provide safe places for children to keep learning and growing amidst a pandemic. Local child care workers have been getting creative to stay open and support families during this unprecedented time, too.
Since 1953, the ECA has invested in early childhood education by providing quality child care through their local learning centers and programs throughout the communities where they are located. In Northeast Indiana, they serve thousands of children with more than 197 programs designed to prepare youth for success in school and beyond. Their two learning center locations are in downtown Fort Wayne and near Parkview Hospital Randallia.
Kacey Deverell, Chief Center Administrator for the ECA, says many of the Center's families are frontline care workers, so the ECA is an important resource they rely on.
"We get calls saying, ‘Our child care center is closing in a week; we need someone,’" Deverell says. "We can be there for those families.”
Despite a national shutdown, the ECA has been able to remain open at a low capacity during most of the quarantine, and their frontline families have expressed extreme gratitude for how they have stepped in to fill the need, Deverell says.
“We heard from many of our families,'Thank you for being open. Thank you for doing what you are doing. Thank you for all the safety precautions you are putting in place,’” she says.
Along with the ECA, daycare centers in Fort Wayne, like Kiddie Clubhouse Daycare
, are also filling in the gap by continuing to provide child care during these uncertain times.
“This is not just my small business; this is my home,” says Kendra Smiley who runs Kiddie Clubhouse Daycare out of her house on the city's Southeast side.
The environment she has created is full of warmth and joy. Her own children greet guests at the door with laughter and enthusiastic questions, chattering away as if they are old friends.
“You have to keep the faith, and encourage everybody to stay positive," Smiley says. "I’m a very positive person, and I think that is what has helped me to get through this whole ordeal. As we face difficult obstacles, we have to work together for the greater gain of our children’s futures.”
Smiley started providing daycare services 14 years ago, after a long history of volunteering to provide child care for organizations like Fort Wayne Academy Day Care
. She was inspired by Cookye Rutledge, who gave her her first position at FWCS and helped her realize that caring for children is her calling.
Since COVID-19 began, Smiley has provided a safe environment for her families by taking the recommended precautions from the Indiana Health Department & Office of Early Childhood. She goes far beyond that, too, caring for the kids and families in her community as if they were her own.
“These kids, they bring you joy," she says. "My 7-year-old would ask me during the quarantine, ‘Mom, are the kids coming?’ She looks forward to seeing everybody.”
Kenyale Bryant, Smiley's daughter, poses in front of the school room at the end of the child care day.
Smiley’s 7-year-old daughter, Kenyale, says that instead of going back to school she likes learning on the computer and being home with mom. Her older sister, Kendall, 13P, however, is excited to go back to school.
“I’m ready to go back to school," she says. "I’m excited to see if my favorite teacher will be there.”
Kendall says her favorite teacher is Mr. King who was diagnosed with COVID-19 this year and hospitalized for several weeks. He is still at home recuperating.
“Pastor King is a pastor and an administrator at the kids’ school, and the kids have been very concerned about him," Smiley says. "He is a pillar in the community. That’s a concern that the kids have: They don’t want to see something happen to someone they really, really care about in the school system. The kids want the staff to be healthy.”
Local schools are taking extensive precautions to keep the staff and students safe, says Krista Stockman, Public Information Officer at Fort Wayne Community Schools.
“Our first concern is the health and well-being of our students," Stockman says.
She explains that while normally back-to-school season is all about jumping into the new year's curriculum as soon as possible, COVID-19 is creating a new normal this fall.
"Our teachers are taking it a little bit slower to see where our kids are at," Stockman says. "The focus is on, ‘How are you doing? Are you okay?’ We won’t be able to teach students if they are not okay. That is really the first order of business."
Just as COVID-19 is drawing attention to the essential workers in society, it's also drawing attention to the need for increased focus on mental health. That applies to students, staff, and faculty at schools, as well.
"Our teachers are so patient with the kids," Stockman says. "They are reminding the students that it’s okay. We’re going to get there, and it is going to be all right. They are really aware of the social and emotional needs of our students. That is a huge priority right now.”
Beyond caring for the emotional needs of students, local schools are following physical precautions to keep their kids safe, too.
“We have cleaning procedures where the buildings are getting cleaned fully more often," Stockman says. "The buses are getting cleaned multiple times a day. Students are having their hands sanitized on leaving and entering the classroom. Visitors are really limited, and everyone is wearing masks and practicing social distancing."
While elementary school students often stay in the same classroom all day, middle and high school students might be more likely to spread the disease by traveling from classroom to classroom. Thus, Fort Wayne Community Schools is implementing a blended learning model for grades 6-12 where only 50 percent of the in-person students are in the school at a time, rotating days they are doing online learning and in-person learning.
“This immediately reduces the amount of students who are there to help with social distancing," Stockman says. "Most of our classrooms have fewer than 20 students in them, so that has really helped in terms of being able to set up the classrooms so students can be spaced apart."
As a local business owner and parent, Andy Catts is grateful for how the schools are entering this challenging season. He runs a local web design company, Web & Brand Solutions, out of his home on the city's Southeast side, and he says that he doesn't know how he would have enough time to work if his kids weren't back in school.
As a local business owner and parent, Andy Catts works from home for Web & Brand Solutions.
As such, he recognizes and deeply appreciates the sacrifice that local teachers, faculty, and child care progressions are making.
“Teachers and child care workers are going above and beyond to provide the community with an essential service," Catts says. "We need to remember they have lives and families to take care of, and they are risking their own health and safety so that our kids can go to school and we can go to work.”
While the challenges of continuing child care and education amidst the uncertainty of a global pandemic may feel insurmountable, Smiley encourages child care providers, educators, and parents alike to stay positive.
“You have to roll with the punches," she says. "You just have to adjust. I’m fearless, but I know with faith, it will get better.”