Tiny masks: Reopening a Seattle daycare center during Covid
By Immigration reporter Esmy Jiminez, KUOW Public Radio, Seattle
Everyone has a story. That was the mantra as KUOW reporters set out to chronicle the lives of people who live and work on a small block in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood in the time of Covid-19.
Teacher Margarita Arias gathers the children around her.
They grab onto a rainbow rope. It has loops for preschoolers to safely walk outside with a chaperone leading the way.
But instead of 10 students, there are only five today — each donning a tiny mask on their small faces. The children skip every other loop on the rope so that they are socially distant from each other. And then they walk around their block on a sunny afternoon, slowly and carefully observing the colors of flowers and cars parked nearby.
This is the reopening scene at the Denise Louie Education Center in Beacon Hill.
It’s an odd sight. Before each child enters the center, their temperature gets taken by staff. Then they wash their hands. But it’s more than that — the sounds and feel of the school have changed. Down to the blue stickers on the playground outside that dot the floor and remind the children how far to stand apart. It’s a class where one child sits at each table and plays with their Play-Doh on their own, sitting quietly together but still deafeningly apart.
Denise Louie closed on March 11. That’s the day Seattle Public Schools closed too. And it has since partially reopened in July. But for a place that once housed 95 students in a school day, it’s now down to 24. And likewise, their staff of 15 is down to nine adults on any given day.
“A lot of our families didn’t want to return immediately,” said Heidi Jensen, the school director.
She said most of the families are from the neighborhood, many of them immigrants who speak Spanish or Vietnamese. And because many are low-income, Denise Louie is free for them. Some parents are essential workers, and they need the support. It’s a difficult choice, and one that’s proving controversial.
Partially reopening any place, let alone a preschool is challenging in the time of viral disease. Students must wash their hands if they touch any surface, and teachers are constantly wiping down tables with disinfectant. They kindly remind the children to stand farther apart from each other when they start playing too closely.
Jensen said it’s hard logistically but also emotionally and educationally for the children to live through all changes.
Preschool is when children learn about their bodies and how to regulate feelings that can initially overwhelm them — like the sensation of a face mask on a warm day that makes them feel flushed.
The new normal also makes it harder to teach interpersonal skills like sharing.
“Prior to the pandemic, we encouraged a lot of group work, because preschool is the age when children learn to share,” Jensen said. “With more social distancing and separation, how do you teach sharing? If you’re sitting at a different table, if you’re using different materials, it’s a lot harder.”
And while Zoom classes can be made to be more interactive, it also makes it harder to feel connected without the familiar presence of classmates or a favorite teacher.
Erica Ortiz has been teaching online to Denise Louie students who have not returned in person. She has adapted but there’s one 4-year-old boy she keeps thinking of. He usually kept her busy in class with his gregarious personality.
“He sent me one video and he said, ‘Oh teacher Erica, I love you. I miss you teacher.’ Oh my gosh it broke my heart because I want to give him a hug.”
Instead Ortiz called her student back and left a sweet message for him. She also teaches the children to shape their hands in a heart and share that over their computer camera or to blow a kiss through their masks.
Jensen said, the director, adds that as a preschool, Denise Louie is a place that connects the dots for many families. It offers groceries from Seattle Tilth, helps families who are experiencing homelessness, and generally looks out for their community.
“It’s not just school that they’re losing,” she said. “But also, how is it affecting their mental health?”
“How is it affecting families that may have lost their job and don’t have any idea of when they might be going back to work or navigating all these programs and resources and making sure they’re receiving that information in their home language?” she said. “There’s a lot to think about.”
Back on the playground, there’s a boy on a swing with a teacher, another on a squeaky tricycle, and two little girls playing near each other. Squealing, they explain they are making chocolate ice cream, as they shovel sand into a bucket and mix it around.
And while the coronavirus is still rippling through the Northwest, for a moment there is respite and even a quiet hope on the block.