Editor’s note: The series “Resilience and Reinvention” shines the light on the innovations of organizations in industries decimated by the pandemic. These adaptive organizations have retooled their business model and redirected their workforce to keep their doors open and workers employed.
COVID-19 shut down LifeSpan School and Day Care for only two days last March. But like countless other businesses in countless other industries, LifeSpan is still feeling the repercussions nearly a year later.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf issued a March 16, 2020 mandate that required all non-essential businesses to temporarily cease operations to get the spread of the coronavirus under control in the Keystone State.
“We immediately applied for a waiver to operate, contacted [State] Senator Bob Mensch’s office for assistance and received our waiver within two days of the initial closure that started on March 16,” said Nicole Fetherman, executive director at LifeSpan. “We reopened at all sites on March 18.”
While LifeSpan’s three eastern Pennsylvania sites — Allentown, East Greenville and Quakertown — were back in business within 48 hours, it was far from business as usual.
“We closed our programs in Allentown and East Greenville after a couple weeks because we could not maintain enough enrollment to continue services,” Fetherman said. “We offered care at our main campus in Quakertown for anyone enrolled in LifeSpan programs. We also did some community outreach to essential workers — mainly health care, police and emergency responders — to offer care, since most all child care [facilities] were closed.
The Allentown and East Greenville locations threw open their doors again on June 1. Fetherman and the LifeSpan team used the two-and-a-half months in between to figure out how to provide care when those facilities reopened, albeit at limited capacity.
“At first, there were no real guidelines established about how to operate, so we created health and safety protocols that worked best for our staff and children in our care — social distancing, reduced room capacities, cleaning and sanitizing, handwashing, exclusion criteria, for example,” Fetherman said.
Agencies such as the Office of Child Development and Early Learning, local health departments and professional organizations did eventually provide additional guidance, including mask mandates.
Enrollment, however, remained “a slow climb,” Fetherman said.
“Many families had at least one parent working from home or unemployed, so the need for care was drastically reduced during the initial phases of the pandemic, and until July.”
LifeSpan’s summer camp programs were also affected, both with less children and changing in typical programs, Fetherman said, adding that lower enrollment also equated to fewer seasonal staffers, with some finding other jobs or remaining on unemployment.
In this way, LifeSpan is very much indicative of COVID-19’s impact on staffing throughout the child care industry. For example, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show close to 167,000 fewer individuals working in child care in December 2020 than there were in December 2019.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation finds that two out of three working parents have changed their child care arrangements due to COVID-19, with up to 75% of working parents saying they have children under six years old staying at home during the pandemic.
“Many families had at least one parent working from home or unemployed, so the need for care was drastically reduced during the initial phases of the pandemic, and until July.”– Nicole Fetherman, executive director at LifeSpan
While LifeSpan and other child care facilities have received state funding to help weather this storm, Fetherman has also been busy completing grant applications in an effort to provide additional resources for LifeSpan’s facilities and staff. A lot of grant applications.
“I wrote 10 grants to assist with personal protective equipment (PPE) and program support,” she said, noting that some reports show roughly 40% of child care centers across the United States have closed permanently since the coronavirus pandemic’s March 2020 arrival in the U.S.
Creativity and Cleaning
From the pandemic’s onset, however, Fetherman and the staff knew they would also have to keep coming up with creative solutions to sustain the business, in addition to stringent cleaning and disinfecting practices.
Within two weeks of reopening, for instance, LifeSpan developed virtual education options for full-day kindergarten and pre-K classes using the classroom platform Seesaw. Teachers also created and posted videos and led mini-activities and lessons via the LifeSpan Facebook page as a way to help families stay connected and engaged,” Fetherman said.
On an administrative level, staff provided COVID-related information to help parents support their child’s development at home as well as “easing fears about news and social media reports on the virus,” she added.
For the 2020-2021 school year, LifeSpan has supported virtual learning and hybrid instruction models for school-age children, which has “required lots of responsive schedule and program changes to align with what school districts were doing. We also opened a new temporary location in our Quakertown area to offer a full-day virtual learning support program,” Letherman said.
Ultimately, Letherman considers Lifespan “lucky to be stronger than most of our industry,” pointing out that current enrollment in its Quakertown location is at 90% compared to pre-COVID numbers, and 80% at the Allentown and East Greenville facilities.
Looking ahead, Letherman even foresees keeping some of LifeSpan’s coronavirus-related changes after the pandemic.
For example, LifeSpan has altered playground schedules to have smaller groups on the playground at a given time, which has resulted in a decrease in injuries and incidents.
Virtual meetings and online training have also become the norm, said Letherman, which has led to a drop in travel-related expenses and less in-person contact during the pandemic.
“Social distancing and room rearrangement to add space between tables has helped us with a reduction of [non-COVID] illnesses typical in early childhood settings,” she added. “Reducing the number of children playing in learning centers at one time has also been a help.”