Local early learning and child care providers continue to support Aspen families despite COVID-19
If you are an essential worker, an employee who is most essential to containing and treating COVID-19, protecting vulnerable populations, and keeping essential services in the community running, and are in need of emergency child care, contact Kids First at 970-920-5363 or emergencychild firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit the Kids First website with resources and supports families with young children can utilize during the pandemic: http://www.cityofaspen.com/1283/Parenting-During-COVID-19.
The emergency child care referral system headed by Kids First is also in partnership with Pitkin County Human Services, Eagle County Human Services, Aspen Valley Hospital and local child care programs.
For Aspen resident Lacey Gellert and her family, the past few weeks have been all about finding a balance and creating a new daily rhythm.
Not unlike other families in the Roaring Fork Valley and across the U.S., Gellert said having her, her husband and their two young kids all at home every day due to the coronavirus pandemic and its related public health orders isn’t easy.
“You don’t really get a break, there’s no time to catch your breath. It’s nonstop,” said Gellert, who works part-time as a personal assistant but has mainly been caring for her 4-year-old son Cooper and 1-year-old daughter Sloane during the COVID-19 crisis.
“It’s challenging, for sure, but things are starting to click this week. We’re all settling into this new routine of it just being us.”
Although Gellert said her family’s new routine means lots of outdoor games and activities together, it also includes daily video Zoom calls with her children’s Aspen Mountain Tots peers and teachers along with constant support from the toddler and preschool program amid the pandemic.
“Dawn really bolsters our mornings with the meetings every day at 8:30 a.m.,” Gellert said. Dawn Ryan is the director of Aspen Mountain Tots. “It helps us get ready for the day and I feel like I can call or text her any time because she knows we’re all probably having a hard time with this adjustment.”
Similar to Ryan and Aspen Mountain Tots, many of the child care and early-learning facilities in the valley physically closed due to COVID-19 are continuing to connect with their students and support families through virtual meetings, social media and newly created online resources.
Woody Creek Kids teachers are filming themselves reading books and students are still keeping up with some of their learning, including watching videos of the school’s incubator to see how chicks hatch from eggs.
The Aspen School District and Aspen Country Day School are continuing their curriculums, too, through virtual read alouds, video lessons and at-home science experiments.
Early Learning Center teachers are pushing out a variety of virtual learning tools and activities to maintain connection on a weekly basis. And Aspen Mountain Tots has themed morning meetings every weekday from show-and-tell to PJ parties for students, along with daily emails filled with activity ideas for parents.
“For me, the most important thing is staying connected in every possible way so we have a foundation for when we come back together,” Ryan said.
“To hear from teachers on a weekly or daily basis is a real positive for everyone throughout all of this,” said Carrie Tippet, executive director of the Early Learning Center in Aspen. “It’s important for students and teachers. They all miss the same structure and time together.”
Many child care and early-learning facilities also are waiving tuition fees during the pandemic and seeking federal, state and local funds to help keep staff paychecks whole until their buildings can reopen.
For some families, however, virtual learning and enrichment activities aren’t enough. That’s why Kids First, a city of Aspen department that both helps local families access child care services and supports county child care and early-learning programs, has stepped up to help match qualified staff and teachers from the area’s closed facilities with children of essential workers who may still need in-person child care.
This emergency child care acts as a referral system, meaning Kids First matches a care provider with a family. However, the specifics of how often the provider works and how much they are paid is between the provider and the family, according to Shirley Ritter, director of Kids First.
Ritter also said there are some ways Kids First can help families with essential workers who normally couldn’t afford child care in the first place, let alone right now, if they are in need of it.
“This was the compromise we came up with to be able to still help the community but not have a program open where you might have a much higher number of kids,” Ritter said. “With little kids, there’s just no such thing as social distancing.”
The number of families who have contacted Kids First in search of emergency child care has been low so far, Ritter said, noting that number may increase if the county sees a surge in severe COVID-19 cases. However, Ritter feels people are more concerned with what recovery looks like coming out of the COVID-19 crisis, namely what jobs will be available and what child care and early learning centers will be open.
After the Great Recession, Ritter said there was an increased need for child care financial aid. Kids First is anticipating that need again post-pandemic, which it is preparing to help with if needed through some of its reserve funds.
Ritter recognizes the challenges many parents are facing right now trying to juggle work, care for their children, follow the public health orders and guidelines and maintain as much normalcy at home as possible. That’s why Kids First recently launched a new website with resources for families with young children, and why she commends the Aspen area’s child care and early-learning centers for continuing to provide fun and educational activities to their students virtually and for sharing their ideas with their colleagues and with parents.
“This is a very resourceful group,” Ritter said of Pitkin County child care and early-learning providers. “Most of the programs we’ve talked to have teachers that are preparing learning packages to drop off or doing some virtual storytelling and other activities with the families they normally serve, and I think that really illustrates what kind of partnership should be going on anyway.”
Morgan Ruppenkamp, a lead teacher in one of the toddler rooms at the Early Learning Center, is one of the local teachers working to maintain connection with her students during the COVID-19 crisis.
Over the past few weeks she’s videoed herself leading lessons on friendship skills, helped her students learn why they should practice good hygiene like handwashing, held Zoom video calls with her students and shared lots of craft and activity ideas with parents to keep everyone connected.
“It’s a hard time for us, because as teachers we take our jobs very seriously and I love all of these students so much. I miss them,” Ruppenkamp said. “I feel like this situation has shown me anything is possible when it comes to learning and staying connected. … I just think it’s important to keep our tight-knit community and to know we’re not in this alone.”
With the help of local child care programs and early-learning centers, along with their own creativity, parents like Gellert and Betty Schou feel they can make it through the COVID-19 crisis, which may even have a lasting positive impact on their families’ lives.
“It’s definitely been an adjustment and challenging, but it’s also a strange gift in a way because of the time they’re able to spend with each other,” Schou said of her two kids, Jens, 6, and Eliana, 3. “They’ve had the time to rediscover toys and have been left alone to explore and play. … It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
Gellert expressed similar thoughts, acknowledging each family’s own strategies and ability to persevere.
“Every family is going to figure it out in their own way. You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you have to go through it,” Gellert said of the COVID-19 crisis. “For us, we’re trying to set short-term goals, say yes as much as we can and keep everyone’s love buckets filled as much as possible.”
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