Little Red Schoolhouse faces shifting needs amid pandemic

Snowmass Village child care center can operate, but challenges abound

The Little Red School House is decorated for the holidays in Snowmass Village on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Little Red Schoolhouse Director Robin Sinclair considers the school “really lucky” amid the turbulence of 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic.

For one, the preschool and day care center has not had any major outbreaks of the coronavirus. They have been able to operate at their usual capacity of 20 preschoolers and 10 toddlers by dividing the preschoolers into two groups and splitting them between the upstairs and downstairs spaces of the schoolhouse.

And under current state and local guidelines, the Little Red Schoolhouse can remain open to provide child care services; teachers clean the facilities daily and a cleaning service comes in on weekends.

“We’ve just been really thankful that we’ve gotten to get back to work and try and help other people get back to work and give the kids, some resemblance of normalcy,” Sinclair said. ” It’s kind of important to all of us — all the directors, all the teachers, not just here but throughout the valley — it was just trying to get back to something that resembled something normal.”

But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been challenges. The pandemic has thrown a wrench into a proposal to expand the schoolhouse to increase its capacity — impacting not only the planning process but also the demand for childcare services and the supply of teachers at the facility.

In the before-times of early 2020, the Little Red Schoolhouse was making headway on an initiative to add more classroom space that could more than double the facilities capacity to care for children in Snowmass Village.

“We were on such a roll,” Sinclair said. “We were kind of trying to start making some moves.”

The board brought on an architect, Tom Fridstein, to consult on the project; Fridstein currently serves on the town council and made child care a major tenet of his campaign platform for the position this year.

There’s an “overwhelming need” for more child care in Snowmass VIllage, Fridstein said in a phone call. As much as the Little Red Schoolhouse wants to help families, the capacity of the preschool and toddler buildings means “they’re very limited in what they can do,” Fridstein said.

Part of that need stems from increased affordable housing within town limits, which — at least in theory — would reduce the amount of time employees need to spend driving to and from work. But without enough child care availability, some parents are forced to drive in and out of town twice daily to take their children to day care.

Fridstein said that the town needs to offer more support and resources to the Little Red Schoolhouse for the expansion, especially as more employee housing becomes available. Currently, the town leases land to the Little Red Schoolhouse for $1 per year, but the expansion project would require additional support from the local government.

“The town’s so gung-ho on building employee housing, but if these employees have housing there’s no day care … for their kids,” Fridstein said. “I think we (Town Council) ought to take an active role in supporting early learning child care.”

At the time, the expansion was an “absolute necessity” to accommodate more families at the schoolhouse, Sinclair said; there are dozens more families with small children than the facility can hold.

“Not that I don’t think that it’s a necessity now, but I think it’s changed so much,” Sinclair said. “But man, I mean, I don’t know right now. We kind of put it on the back burner, just because so many families aren’t even sure what they’re planning on doing.”

The demand for child care has fluctuated throughout the year, impacted by the pandemic, an influx (and outflux) of newcomers to the valley, and the job status of those already here. When shutdowns first began in the spring, most families felt safer keeping their children at home, Sinclair said. The need spiked as restrictions eased, with local families returning to work and valley transplants relocating thanks to new work-from-home provisions.

“We did kind of see a really strange downward trend, but then with all the families that moved into the valley from other states, then it got really high again for a little while,” Sinclair said. Now, as some families return to their home states, “the numbers have kind of leveled back out again.”

And with the threat of new restrictions as COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise, some parents that currently rely on the services at the Little Red Schoolhouse may no longer need them if their workplaces shut down or return to a work-from-home format.

“I think we’re going to unfortunately kind of end up waiting to see how the valley rebounds before starting to have that conversation (about expansion) again,” Sinclair said. “We’re going to need to kind of see what the fallout of this is.”

New restrictions could also impact the availability of teachers at the Schoolhouse by way of a trickle-down effect. Some staff have older children in elementary, middle and high school; when those schools move to remote learning, teachers who would normally be available to care for Little Red Schoolhouse students have to stay home to care for their own children.

If a shortage of teachers became an ongoing problem as the result of long-term school shutdowns — or if new regulations placed new caps on child care facilities — the school could reduce the capacity of the preschool and offer child care for only one group 10 preschoolers instead of two, Sinclair said.

But that limited capacity, voluntary or not, creates a problem all on its own — one that could be exacerbated if illness were to strike the staff at the schoolhouse.

“My biggest fear — which I’ve literally only had to do once, I think — is, what happens if everybody wakes up on Monday morning feeling horrible?” Sinclair said. “What were we going to do, you know? What, I mean, tell people that they can’t bring their families here?”

“I’d be surprised if every single one of our child care centers in the valley doesn’t go through that at some point.”

This story is the first in a multipart series on childcare in Snowmass Village. Articles will be published every other week in the Snowmass Sun through January. Parents and childcare providers: Want to share your experience? Email Kaya Williams at