Giving Thought: The rigors of preschool and childcare in a pandemic

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Aspen Community Foundation, Lauder event, Aug. 13, 2018.
Steve Mundinger

This pandemic is wearing on everyone. We’re all tired of the stress, the ever-changing rules and not always knowing what to expect.

But perhaps the group with the biggest burden, or at least the most to worry about, is families with preschool-age children. During this uncertain period in history, when employment is spotty and income irregular for many of us, ensuring that your child can be safely cared for is a particular challenge.

“We have some families who are working primarily in the service industry — cleaning hotel rooms, front desk people or restaurant workers — maybe they’re working or maybe their hours have been cut, and that’s when the stressors increase,” said Sandy Swanson, of the Family Visitor Programs in Glenwood Springs. “They’re extraordinarily nervous.”

For families living from paycheck to paycheck, there is no certainty or stability in the COVID-19 economy. Swanson works with roughly 210 vulnerable, low-income families between Aspen and Parachute, and she said, “Nobody knows what’s going to happen next week, next month or next year.”

Parents who have steady work are grateful for the income but “terrified” about catching the virus and bringing it home, Swanson says. Those who don’t have steady work are trying to find it somewhere else and often watching the children in their spare time. Swanson says the families who need child care “are probably going to use something informal, like family members or friends, because they can’t commit to a four- to five-day-per-week spot (at a child care center).”

For these families, COVID-19 is a waking nightmare that has destabilized their lives in various ways. Many of them have contracted the disease (none died, although many families had multiple people infected) but even those who haven’t are on pins and needles every day, worried about their health, their finances and, of course, their young children.

Meanwhile, the child care providers themselves are living in their own nail-biting drama. It’s hard enough to control and shepherd children younger than five years old under normal circumstances, but imagine all the cleaning, sanitizing, handwashing and health checks required during a pandemic.

“Our programs are all open in Pitkin County,” said Shirley Ritter, executive director of Kids First, a branch of the Aspen city government that supports local child care providers. “They have worked really hard to stay open.”

Unlike past years, Ritter says, the providers aren’t 100% full. She suspects that lower demand for the child care vacancies, driven mainly by the COVID-19 threat, is part of the reason, along with the need for spacing between kids, which lowers overall capacity. The whole situation feels “very fragile,” she says, and parents and providers are both weary of the vague tension and pressure caused by the pandemic.

Adding to that tension are questions about the approaching winter, the local economy and the nature of the ski season. Will the snow fly? Will the hotels be occupied? Will guests dine at local restaurants? So many unknowns and, as COVID-19 is teaching us, very few clear answers.

If there’s an upside to all the anxious uncertainty, it’s that the Roaring Fork Valley’s government agencies and nonprofit organizations have responded effectively to all the interconnected problems triggered by COVID-19. Through the generosity of donors and the diligent collaboration between various community partners to provide food, financial assistance, counseling, health care and more, our most vulnerable neighbors have been spared many of the worst effects of the pandemic.

“The safety nets that this valley has built — rental assistance, food, mental health, all of it — has been a lifesaver,” Swanson said. “It’s just not happening in, say, metro Denver.”

Among these supports was an initiative agreed upon by the Kids First Advisory Board to provide tuition support to any local child care provider who might be partially or completely closed because of a COVID case. By helping to keep child care providers afloat, Kids First also supports working parents, their employers and, by extension, the entire local economy.

Preschools and other child care providers have been working hard to deliver safe, quality care for children so parents can work. Just like the many others on the frontlines trying to provide some semblance of normalcy and services, these organization are often the unsung heroes in our community.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.