Preschools strained under Covid rules


An already precarious preschool situation is looking at a deeper crisis: Restrictions related to Covid-19 are limiting class sizes to 12 kids, leaving many families potentially without childcare and schools without critical income.

To adapt, preschool directors have cut back hours, furloughed staff, rearranged classrooms and increased sanitation. Intensive planning for the fall is underway, but it is uncertain whether preschools, like schools, will fully resume classes amid rising infections in Marin.

A few daycares are open now with only returning students; for the families excluded from those programs, alternatives are few and far between. In the Bolinas-Stinson area, the Bolinas Children’s Center closed last month, so now only one preschool remains: the school district’s free program, which is out of session in summer. In the San Geronimo Valley, three small childcare centers operate, and around Point Reyes Station and Inverness, two preschools exist: the Papermill Creek Children’s Corner and the home-based Huckleberry Garden. In Tomales, there is only Shoreline Acres.

“We are going to have a bunch of children who don’t have the benefits of preschool, and a bunch of families who don’t have childcare,” said Daphne Cummings, the director of Shoreline Acres. “And it’s not like they can really go other places.”

Shoreline Acres usually serves around 24 children, so about half of those families will not be able to attend the one-classroom school. Ms. Cummings said she will prioritize 4-year-olds, leaving about 12 families with 3-year-olds facing a year without childcare. Some families with two kids will only be able to send one, and prospective students have been turned away.

Ms. Cummings is worried about the ranching families that her school serves. In general, the father’s jobs on the ranch have been stable, but usually the mothers find jobs here and there, collecting eggs, cleaning hotel rooms or working over the hill while their children are in preschool, she said.

“If we don’t have childcare for both kids, I’m really concerned about what that means for families. It won’t work if the youngest can’t go,” she said. Families will likely seek informal childcare without all of the safety measures that Shoreline Acres has, she said.

Children kept out of preschool will also lose valuable instruction that prepares them for kindergarten—like how to use scissors, raise their hand and make friends.

“What they cannot get at home is the opportunity to interact with peers in a group, and to share space and share material, and learn how to negotiate and solve problems,” Ms. Cummings said. “The social-emotional domain for children is really the most important for preschools, and we’re going to be really limited by what we do.”

The loss of students also creates a loss in revenue. Normally, Shoreline Acres would be conducting outreach to families, as the school is reimbursed per student by the state and a few nonprofits; a handful of families pay tuition. State subsidies, which usually increase each year, are flat, and the aftercare program, which lets kids from the elementary school attend in the afternoon, will not operate because it involves mixing cohorts. Without a full school and after three months of no income, most of the staff has been let go. 

The Papermill Creek Children’s Corner functions in the same fashion as Shoreline Acres. Both feed into the Shoreline Unified School District, and both receive state tuition waivers and nonprofit scholarships. They are following the school district’s plans to reopen in the fall. Papermill is bigger and has the capacity for two cohorts, with two classrooms and two entrances. 

The board is exploring reopening configurations, and director Lourdes Romo has been remodeling the classroom based on licensing guidelines. The soft toys were removed and motion sensors were installed on all of the sinks and toilets. 

The board’s goal is to serve all families who want to attend, but often the school has more than 24 students, board president Lauren LaRocca said. The current plan is to prioritize 15 returning families and 4-year-olds. 

Drop-in hours will no longer be provided and bringing parents in to help is not an option anymore. Hours will be reduced so that the school can be thoroughly disinfected on a daily basis, and plans for when a teacher gets sick still need to be hashed out.

A couple of daycares have opened this summer under the cohort restrictions, like Huckleberry Garden, which opened last month with a makeshift outdoor classroom at a home in Inverness Park. Parents stay in their car while director Ilie Watterson takes kids’ temperatures, and they bring their own food. Curtains and canopies shade the kids, and tables are placed six feet apart to allow for physical space. Eight students currently attend, less than the usual 15. Children of essential workers and returning families are prioritized, while prospective students are placed on a waitlist. Families were required to commit to three days a week, and tuition was raised to help cover costs, from $55 a day for four mornings a week to $60 a day for three mornings. 

“The cohort [model] is extremely limiting, and it’s really going to have a big impact on parents being able to work,” Ms. Watterson said.  “All of the directors are really grappling with how you prioritize.” 

The San Geronimo Childcare Center, which has three programs for different levels of development, opened on June 15 for an initial three-week period, the required time for which a cohort must not mix. The school closes at 4 p.m. instead of 6 p.m., and attendance is greatly reduced: only six children are in the preschool program, assisted by two teachers.

“Right now, it’s very nice, very sweet. Parents are loving the protocols,” director Sharon Dahme said. She has become a diligent cleaner and is tasked with taking kids to the bathroom. While the children take naps, she cleans the outdoor play area, and while they play outside, she sanitizes indoors. Toys are not shared, so there are six buckets and six shovels for each student, and everyone is spending much more time outside.