When the Church Street Preschool closed last March at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in East Tennessee, Director Beth Cooper-Libby and the Preschool Board members expected a closure of two weeks.
“It felt like I was standing on frozen water and the ice broke under me,” Libby says when it became unclear when the Preschool would open its doors again. “I had no idea of what we were going to do.”
And while the Preschool’s closure did surpass two weeks, children returned to the classroom just 39 days after shutting down while most Knox County schools remained closed for the remainder of the spring semester.
During the shutdown, it became evident to Libby the importance of the Preschool to the Knoxville community. Many of the school’s parents work in fields on the frontlines of the pandemic including as nurses, police officers and city and TVA employees.
“I really had to look at what we do in a whole different way,” Libby says. “I always thought we were a mission of the church, but when we became the reason parents were able to go to work during a crisis, I was just like, ‘This is way more mission than I had really thought about.’”
As Libby explored options to help parents by reopening the Preschool, many obstacles created a tense couple weeks filled with uncertainty. The Preschool board, church members and church administrators all helped plan for a safe reopening.
“We kept our sense of humor. We realized that we were all working toward the same goal,” Libby says. “And when we opened, it was nothing but good.”
Libby says the excitement from the students once the Preschool reopened its doors was infectious, as kids played with joy in their classrooms and with their friends.
In addition to wearing masks, student temperatures are checked at the front door before the entry for each day. The two younger classrooms and two older classrooms often participated in activities together like playing on the playground, Easter Egg hunts and Santa visits, but now each classroom operates on its own so there is minimized risk to the larger Preschool population if someone were to contract Covid-19 .
Parents are also not allowed in the building, which Libby says has been a downside to reopening during the pandemic.
“I always felt the students benefited from the teachers and the parents being able to communicate with each other face to face,” Libby says. “…Like Church Street had to learn how to go online [for worship and small groups], Preschool had to figure out what to do when we weren’t having that face to face interaction.”
Now Libby communicates with parents using Remind, a communication platform for teachers and parents, and the Church Street Preschool Facebook page. Also, teachers will often meet and greet with parents in the outdoor breezeway to mitigate risk.
In addition to limited contact between teachers and parents, parents were also asked to pack lunches for students when the Preschool reopened to limit the amount of surfaces touched by outside sources like caterers. The catering staff returned a few months later, and has been serving boxed lunches for students.
Libby says there will be nothing sweeter than returning to the lunchroom. Each classroom now eats in their own room at 12 pm instead of all the students, teachers and staff eating at the same time in the lunchroom.
“The acoustics in the lunchroom are fantastic. I don’t know what Tim’s got up there in the choir room, but trust me, the acoustics in the lunchroom must be 100 times better,” Libby jokes. “I never thought I’d say I miss the lunchroom being so noisy, but I miss the lunchroom being so noisy.”
In addition to following CDC guidelines, extra safety measures have been taken to keep students and staff safe. The lunchroom tables and playground are cleaned in between each use using a Department of Health and Human Services solution, and toys are cleaned and rotated in each classroom during nap time.
An additional door greeter staff position was added to help move children between their classroom and parents as needed throughout the day. Libby also ensured there were two staff members to help give breaks, one for the younger classrooms and one for the older classrooms.
Over the course of the pandemic, Libby wrote and was awarded $20,122.94 in grants for the preschool, which has helped the preschool stay open and pay teachers during any unforeseen shutdowns. The grants were funded through the Tennessee Department of Human Services and The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.
Some grant money was awarded specifically for equipment and supplies, which was used for items such as touchless trash cans.
The preschool has only had to shut down two times since it reopened, and each time the parents didn’t have to pay and teachers continued to receive compensation.
“We provided a safe place for parents – especially our essential workers – to leave their children,” Senior Pastor Catherine Nance says. “Children are resilient when they trust the adults around them and feel they are cared for and cared about.”
“I love watching them on the playground and look forward to the day when I can visit in the classroom and share a story.”
Preschool to celebrate 50th anniversary of the Week of the Young Child
Each year, the National Association of the Education for Young Children encourages early learning facilities to participate in Week of the Young Child. This week, the Preschool is celebrating students, teachers, families and the Knoxville community.
Keep your eyes on the Preschool Facebook page to see the children participate in a spirit week with dress-up days like Favorite Color Day and Pajama Day. Each class will end the week with ice cream and cake at snack time to celebrate the end of Week of the Young Child and the Preschool’s 52nd birthday.