The day the Lussier Family East YMCA childcare center opened for the first time in nearly three months, all the uncertainty of a global pandemic was temporarily suspended.
“At 6:30 a.m. Monday, June 1, the first kid arrived and that was when all the tears came,” Briana Kurlinkus, early childcare education director at the East YMCA said.
After preparing for months to bring families back to the center, the YMCA opened for child care services for the first time last week. During that time of closure, staff have had to furlough employees, apply for local grants, implement cleaning protocols and navigate the anxiety of families during a global pandemic.
With the exception of emergency childcare services — all three facilities including Lussier Family East YMCA, Sun Prairie and the Lussier Family West Side location have been closed since March, affecting more than 200 children. Although the states Safer at Home Order considered childcare centers essential businesses, they could only stay open if they had less than 50 children and 10 staff members onsite at one time.
In addition, as parents and guardians lost their jobs or were forced to work from home, care centers around the state closed their doors. In May, Dane County had only 35% of group child care centers open, according to a news release from Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.
In accordance with the Forward Dane Plane, Phase 1 and 2 which went into effect on May 26, childcare facilities are allowed to open with no groups larger than 15, and no interactions between classrooms.
Kurlinkus said that the last two months have been challenging. She had to furlough four staff members and be away from the families that she has gotten to know over her 13-year career at the YMCA.
“We go to work one day and then we’re told that we can’t come back,” Kurlinkus said. “That was very difficult for us because we have a big impact on the community; that’s serving our families and that’s providing a safe place for children to come.”
The team had been preparing since April answering parents’ questions on what the center will look like once it opens: Do we have to wear a mask? Can my child bring belongings from home? How are you doing to sanitize and social distance?
And although some students dive right back into the classroom like the last three months hasn’t happened — some students are still uneasy with the uncertainty. There East Y is licensed for 34 children and between eight to 12 are taking advantage of the childcare services.
Other families and children haven’t returned out of fears of spreading the virus, Kurlinkus said. As businesses and facilities open, some parents and guardians have no choice but to find childcare as they must go back to work.
“I would say the second kid that got dropped off with mom last week — I could see her little hands shaking,” Kurlinkus said. “She was so nervous and she didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know if she could hug us. She didn’t know if she should sit in the chair and she kinda just stood there with this look on her face and her hands folded.”
“I’m like wow — that’s reality. So I knelt beside her and I asked her, ‘are you feeling a little nervous?’ And she said, ‘yes.’ And I told her that it was okay to feel nervous and that we’re going to be here to help her every step of the way. And so we walked her up to her classroom and she saw all of her friends and she looked at me and she goes, ‘I can actually go play?’ I said, ‘yeah — go ahead!’
Kurlinkus can understand that nervous energy that accompanies the uncertainty of the pandemic. As a single mother, the morning of June 1, she also had to drop off her daughter at the YMCA to return to work.
But after preparing for reopening – including communication with parents, virtual zoom meetings, classroom assessments and concrete cleaning protocols, Kurlinkus said she felt reassured with the Y’s protocols.
She said, however, her staff has been the shining star during the pandemic. Although furloughed, Kurlinkus has been in regular contact with each one of them. And on that first day of reopening, every single teacher came back to work.
“I really want to give that credit to my team for being rock stars and coming back,” Kurlinkus said. “A lot of them have families, too, and they’re putting themselves at risk. The love I have for them is probably triple-fold at this point because they could have stayed home, they could have declined coming back to work, but I’m very blessed to have the team that I do have.”
To keep financially stable, childcare centers including the YMCA furloughed employees and took advantage of local grants and stimulus package funding.
Up to 30% of childcare facilities in Wisconsin could have closed due to the economic fall out of the pandemic, according to a study from the Center for American Progress.
Dane County made $3.5 million dollar worth of grants available to the roughly 500 licensed child care providers. The grants ranged from $1,400 to $15,000 depending on the size of the provider.
Some families decided to continue to make their monthly childcare center payments, even though their children were not attending because people see the center as a resource for the community, Kurlinkus said.
In addition, more than 30 children with parents who are essential workers were able to take advantage of the childcare that was provided by the YMCA during the pandemic at the Sun Prairie and westside locations.
And because of the experience they had many of those families have now enrolled for the fall program, Kurlinkus said.
“Our impact is not just for our Y and for those that utilize it, but for the community at large,” Kurlinkus said. “That’s one thing that I say is that the Y really does care about this community.”