Learning Bridge Executive Director Lindsay Percival plays drums with two preschoolers, all of them using chopsticks. Each drummer receives a fresh set of chopsticks.
Photo from Learning Bridge
Learning Bridge Executive Director Lindsay Percival plays drums with two preschoolers, all of them using chopsticks. Each drummer receives a fresh set of chopsticks. Photo from Learning Bridge

The chilly fall weather poses a bit more difficulty in taking the temperature of each of the preschoolers before they enter Learning Bridge Early Education Center. 

“I have to get myself gloves, because it was getting really cold this morning, and I had to hide the thermometers in my pockets so they would work,” Executive Director Lindsay Percival said on Sept. 30 during a Zoom meeting with supporters of Learning Bridge. In cold weather, foreheads are hidden beneath hats and scarves.

Children and parents know the routine: Children put on their masks in the car; after temperatures are checked and shoes sprayed with rubbing alcohol, Mr. Sam, wearing his mask, escorts them to their classrooms.

Even though Governor J.B. Pritzker closed schools, including preschools, last March, staff at Learning Bridge Early Education Center have been in touch with their students though phone calls and a free app called Dojo Classroom.

From Lockdown to Reopening

“We were concerned about the emotional and physical health of our children and families,” Ms. Percival said. “We were aware that some had lost older family members; nearly 70% of our low-income families had lost employment, were furloughed or [were] underemployed, which means that they're only working a few hours a week.

“The likelihood of this time being traumatic for children was high. Teachers were posting activities and stories to connect with our families.”

Anna Rappelt on a video presented at the Sept. 30 meeting said, “We knew that we needed a way to connect with our parents or families, our children, to make sure that they know that we they knew that we were still here, thinking of them every single day.

“We were able to invite all of the children and families into their own classrooms [so] they could see and share videos with each other. The teachers planned activities to do at home. One classroom did a ‘Find Anything Green This Week,’ and children posted all the green things in their house. … One teacher asked the parents to show baby pictures, and the children could see the baby pictures of each other. So this was invaluable when we were closed. When we opened we found out that this tool became invaluable also because it helped us transition a child from one classroom to a new classroom. They were able to see pictures of the friends that they were going to be with and pictures of their teachers as well.”

Gov. Pritzker allowed childcare centers to open during Phase Three of his recovery plan. Ms. Percival filed a 22-page reopening plan with the Department of Children and Family Services to get the center’s license reinstated.

“Even a pandemic does not stop the essential work that we do,” Director of Development Jenny Merdinger at the Sept. 30 Zoom meeting. “And that is what is that is what drives us. Our highest priority is to help children from all socio economic backgrounds in the skills that they need to succeed in school, while fostering a shared community values of cooperation and respect for one another. … We went from a world with 86 children to a 17-week shutdown to what is now our new normal, which is the total of children that we can have right now – 69.”

Ms. Percival added, “The Department of Children and Family Services told us to close on March 13. It was a Friday. They suspended our license that day. … I thought that we might be closed for maybe a month. I knew I had to take care of my staff, our families and the center. I reassured the staff that they would be paid during the close-down. And we were able to do so.”

Evanston Community Foundation, Evanston Rotary Clubs, the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, and Northwestern University collaborated to purchase personal protective equipment for all the early childhood centers in Evanston, Ms. Percival said, “They bought us hand sanitizer and thousands of masks and gloves.”

In addition, said Ms. Merdinger, “Early on in the pandemic, Evanston Community Foundation provided us with a no-strings-attached to grant for $20,000, to be distributed directly as cash to the families who needed it most. And then they did that again, two months later. … The only thing they asked of us is just get this money out the door.”

Learning Bridge was able to provide 30 families 30 families with $400 gift cards. And Evanston Community Foundation came through again, “and we were able to also provide $400 gift cards to another round of families. [At least one person in] all the families who receive cards either were permanently fired or laid off or had been furloughed to it to a level where they were not earning enough money to stay at home and a lot of our families also live with relatives and friends.”

Ms. Merdinger referred to a recently created State fund for childcare. “Governor Pritzker and Lieutenant Governor Stratton recognized that there's no economic recovery, without preschool, without early childhood education. This has helped 4,000 preschools across the state - Illinois being the only state that that used their federal CARES dollars in that way.

The Day

Dropoffs and pickups occur at the north side of the building, where staff greet the children and check them in for the day. Teachers and children wear masks. “I’m blown away by how children have adapted to masks,” Ms. Percival said.

Once toys have been played with, they are cleaned with soap and water and sprayed after they are dry with a bleach-and-water solution. Classrooms are cleaned every day. Tuition is paid by credit or debit card. Only children and staff are allowed in the building, which is an old house with two staircases, one for going up and the other for coming down. Packaged food is brought in for lunch – “a lot of sandwiches and wraps,” Ms. Percival said.

There is a quarantine room for any child who gets sick. “And if children show any symptoms, and they have to go home within half an hour,” she said.

Since all laundry has to be done every day now – such as sheets, blankets, rags, aprons and masks – the center has purchased a commercial washer and dryer.

Children will continue to spend time outside as long as the weather permits. Hopscotch and obstacle courses, made permanent with spray paint, have replaced bicycles and balls.

Inside, the newly expanded classrooms allow children to interact from an appropriate distance. A personal “bank” for each child has replaced the library full of books – a bag containing five or six, even seven books; some Play Doh; markers and crayons and stickers. “If they're not happy with some of the choices in the room, if they want to make some art, or if they want to have a little bit of time, they go to their personal bank.”

Ms. Percival said, “Teachers are finding themselves spending hours washing and sanitizing toys, instead of focusing on intentionally supporting children's development. Everyone is focused on what needs to be done, or working as a team to make it happen and to keep everybody safe. Parents are essential workers responsible for frontline cleaning and support and they have to go out to work, this is not an option. They have to be able to go to work, having the confidence that their children are in a safe environment, and getting the same care and attention wherever they are.”

Mr. Sam said, also on video, “There are more logistics. There are more tedious things to be done. They’re important, but it's possible to still have those teachable moments. And we do and, and in a sense, there have been a lot of rewarding things that have come out of it, more rewarding than we would have expected – unique things that the kids are really enjoying. And I think that a lot of those positive aspects are going to be things that we can carry through COVID-19. So it's, it's been good. It’s been hard, but it's been good. And it helps to have a good supportive team in school.”

Ms. Percival said, “The need for high-quality, full-day preschool is important to children so they can be prepared for lifelong learning.”