Community college child care centers cope with the pandemic

Northampton Community College Children's Centers are physically closed, but they still are helping student parents by remotely coordinating activities for children. (NCC)

The switch to fully online learning during the pandemic has challenged everyone, but student parents have been hit harder in some ways. 

At Northampton Community College (NCC) in Pennsylvania, Family Success Coordinator Janette Zuk helps student parents by acting as a “resource broker,” connecting them to financial assistance information, tutoring and more. Since the pandemic, their requests have been a little more “anxiety-ridden,” Zuk said, as some have lost jobs or had health issues, have had challenges with online learning or are worrying about child care – among other things. 

“They feel disconnected,” Zuk said. So she’s tried to stay in touch and make sure they’re getting the support they need. 

Finding ways to cope

On some issues, Zuk can help. For instance, she can point people to the college’s website to view job openings. For those having difficulty with online courses, Zuk has connected them to other student parents who were more confident with remote learning. 

Other issues have been a little harder to solve. Students taking classes while at home with children have found it difficult to concentrate, Zuk said. She recalled talking to one student on the phone and hearing children screaming in the background. 

In talking with these students, Zuk heard how some are coping. Those living with family or friends can get a little break sometimes, or alternate shifts with a spouse or partner. But others have had to wait until their children are in bed to do schoolwork. 

Fortunately, finding activities for their children has been made easier by NCC’s Children’s Centers, which serve about 120 children between its two locations. Though the centers have been closed, staff still connect with the children through Zoom, hosting activities that include stories and science experiments. They also send parents ideas for activities. 

“Our teachers were passionate about maintaining connections,” said Denise Madzik, coordinator of the Reibman Hall Children’s Center, where a third of the children enrolled are children of NCC students. 

Taking a hit and moving forward

These activities are free; when the centers closed down in mid-March, they stopped charging tuition for childcare. While students and faculty received discounts on tuition, and some student parents benefit from a federal Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) grant, the centers have lost revenue, particularly from community members with children enrolled, during the shutdown. 

“We took a hit,” said Faye Freer, Hanig Family Children’s Center coordinator, which serves a large number (about 75 percent) of children of NCC students. And when the centers reopen, they will likely incur extra costs due to supplies related to COVID-19. But, she added, “We have the support of the college, financially and in other ways.” 

The centers will reopen August 17, a week before the fall semester starts. 

“One of the students I talked with said, ‘I’m camping out on the front steps of the Children’s Center so I can be the first one in there,’” Zuk said. She added she is concerned, though, about how many student parents will return this fall. She and others are working on outreach now. 

At Lincoln Land Community College (LLCC) in Illinois, parents are in the same boat. LLCC’s Child Development Center closed in the spring when the pandemic hit. 

Normally, the center serves about 68 children, a third of which were children of LLCC students benefiting from a CCAMPIS grant. The rest of the children enrolled at the center were either children of staff and faculty (about 10 percent) and children of community members (60 percent). 

Like at NCC, Child Development Center teachers and staff made sure they still had opportunities to learn and connect. They posted activity ideas on the parent communication app, developed a YouTube channel to post videos for the children and held Zoom meetings. They also set up an online space so families could share photos. 

“As a staff, we just came together unbelievably and brainstormed what we can do for parents. We’re all in this and we want to do what’s best for children and families,” said Laurie Rhodes, the center’s director. 

Because they serve children from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, they engaged with families in multiple ways, including mailing information and calling people when online engagement wasn’t possible. 

“We tried to do whatever we could to keep families engaged through this,” Rhodes said, and parents “were so appreciative for keeping kids connected.” 

As long as staff continued to provide opportunities for children – even virtually – the center remained funded. 

Center staff and teachers also used the last few months to delve into professional development. They’ve been learning how best to meet the social and emotional needs of kids, because “who knows how children are going to react to this crisis?” Rhodes said. 

Reopening etiquette

The LLCC center reopened recently, though with many restrictions. There are 20 children, one of which is the child of a student who is doing clinicals. Family members or guardians dropping off children can’t come inside the building. Temperatures are taken and questions are asked daily about possible symptoms. Children over the age of 2 must wear masks. 

“The children have done absolutely remarkably,” Rhodes said. “It’s amazing how children have adjusted to the routine.” 

Because there are fewer children at the center, they get more attention, too. 

For the fall semester, student parents will get priority when enrolling their kids at the center. In preparation for the semester, staff are doing interviews and tours with parents over Zoom. 

It’s not ideal, Rhodes said, but “we’re making the best that we can out of a bad situation.” 

Postponing reopening

At Mt. San Antonio College (Mt. SAC) in California, the Child Development Center will not reopen anytime soon. The state, along with Los Angeles County, has not yet reached the reopening stage for college campuses.

The center typically enrolls nearly 200 children.  At least 150 parents are part-time and full-time students at the college. Staff is currently surveying parents. The parents who have responded so far have been understanding about the center remaining closed. 

“We are all anxious to get back to safe in-person services for children/families, however several parents and staff have expressed apprehension about returning until the pandemic is better contained in our state and county,” said Tamika Addison, director of the center. 

While the center remains closed, teaching staff connects with children and families at least twice per week via Zoom meetings, and parents are provided daily activities to do with their children. Staff members also are receiving training and learning opportunities. 

“I think that parents were initially overwhelmed with trying to complete their courses online and participate in remote learning activities with the center teachers,” Addison said. “Many have continued to participate, though, and have now found a routine that works for their families.”  

A few parents, however, have moved on to other child care options – particularly those working and taking classes. 

For now, the college is following guidance and requirements from the county health department, California Community Care Licensing division and the California Department of Education (CDE), which provides a big chunk of the center’s operating budget. Addison said the most helpful reference is a manual from EveryChild California, created to help CDE-funded centers to reopen when ready.

“Also, we stay connected with centers that are operating now to understand the challenges and solutions for reopening – and operating – safely during the pandemic,” Addison said. “We’re trying to learn everything we can in anticipation that we will have to live with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future.”

Educating educators

The child care centers at Mt. SAC, NCC and LLCC also have another purpose: to train students pursuing a career in early childhood education (or early care and education at Mt. SAC). ECE classes are going to be online in the fall, which is a challenge. 

“You need a child in front of you” to get the full learning experience, Rhodes said. 

“We’re looking at how we can serve the needs of early childhood education students,” she said. 

Mt. SAC’s child development department will offer virtual lab and fieldwork opportunities. At NCC, ECE associate degree students in their last semester will be able to at least intern and do their student teaching at the centers. 

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.