October 29, 2021

Tribal center in Colusa County acts as community hub, even with lost casino funding

This is episode 2 in the 'Pandemic Provider Interview' series. You can find more episodes here.

We've always had a farm stand where parents could just take fresh local produce home with them. We did like a grab bag, that would have like a recipe and the ingredients in it to make something at home that was just separate so that it was safer. We did the same thing for just like prep fresh produce that we would send home with families and brown paper bags that they could just grab and go.

We did also like, “take and make” activities at home so that families could take like an activity or an art project or a STEM activity home with them and work on it at home. We still continue to do some distance learning for families that aren't ready to come back into the program. But we still are supporting them right now on some distance learning. Some of those things, of course, comprehensive services and really supporting families with additional supports for mental health. So we've done a lot of getting resources to families if they need to be able to talk to somebody else and get something that was more supportive of either an individual or their entire family's mental health. And that's been a big piece. So many different things that just I think has been probably something that we'll keep, because they've been really effective and parents have really talked about how much they appreciate that. And we've been creative about spaces for families to come on site where we could do like a six foot distance with mask on conversation if they didn't feel like Zoom was enough, those kinds of things we would do.

Provider:

I am the director at hand for the Early Learning Center for the close Indian community council. I've been working for the tribe as the director since 2003. I came on in 2003 to help them open the center. We were able to get some HUD funds to be able to specifically look at the early learning and care program. That would be both for the tribe that is located on the reservation and as well as opening it up to the community outside of the reservation, and for the employees of the tribe. Since I've been here, we've just really had a lot of changes for the center itself. I've been fortunate because I've been the director since we opened. But when we did open we just had a tribal subsidy as well as private pay families. Since then, we now have an early headstart, childcare partnership with the California Department of Education, as well as the CCTR general childcare plans contract with the California Department of Education, which the CCTR will transition to July 1 to DSS, but the early headstart, childcare partnerships is with CDE. We also have tribal childcare and development funds, which is federal direct funding to the tribe and we have the CACFP. We have an mlu with the Coosa County Office of Education for behavioral health supports and we also just recently were awarded the early headstart child care partnership with the AIA and new funding new partner. It's definitely a layered approach and we definitely have multi systems and multi funding that comes in as a layer approach to supporting our program. I also should mention that I'm also the co-chair for the Travel Childcare Association of California, which also operates the tribal quality counts California region. We have a lot of different things that we're doing specifically for travel childcare in California to support that. We do have a traveler operated center and it's a single site. We have four total classrooms at this point. So we have two infant toddler classrooms, which are early headstart, child care partnerships. There's private families on there as well, private pay families. Then we have preschool pre K, and then we will be implementing the new early headstart, childcare partnership with the AIAN, and now we'll have two additional infant toddler classrooms.

Provider:

So when we first started having conversations about what our center would do when the pandemic hit, which was towards, probably the end of April, beginning of March. At that time, we had made the decision that we would follow the lead of the local County Office of Education and public health recommendations. So when the public schools closed, I think we might just be slightly ahead of them, but we knew that we were going to be close. We closed our doors and our last day of in person operations, right at the pandemic, was March 17th. So from March 18th, to the beginning of June, we were closed. We did some distanced learning support during that time and some parent engagement, family engagement, different things that we did for outreach with families, provided some distanced learning materials, and supplies. Those types of things like diapers, wipes, and PPE. But we didn't have in person care at all until the second week of June. What I ended up doing during that closure was work from home. Then also, since I was the only one on site, I would sometimes come in and do some of the distanced learning support and outreach on site from here. We surveyed our parents, and I think it was probably in May to get us an idea of, if we did reopen our doors, how many families would be able to come back. Of our capacity, we had approximately, about 55 and about 97% of those families had an interest in coming back. Then we had to make some decisions on what that was going to look like if we brought staff back and how we were going to be able to really reduce those classroom sizes. And it kind of just happened naturally. So we had a lot of different discussions with families, sorry, I did and eventually, we kind of found out that some of the families wanted to kind of stagger. So yes, they did want to come back, but maybe they didn't want to start till August or maybe they didn't want to start till September. So we were able to do a kind of staggered approach. We did get the okay to reopen in June. At that time, what I did was I had been in communication with all of our staff, our team here and found out how many of them could come back and if they felt comfortable coming back. And again, that just really happened naturally, but some of the staff weren't ready to come back. So we had a volunteer system in the first phase. We would have the staff that wanted to come back, come back and then we would have to recheck in August/September to see if there would be a second phase, where we were able to hopefully increase some of our numbers to have a second base come back.

Provider:

I had been in contact with the Indian health services, which is our monitoring agency for our center, as well as the early headstart child care partnership grant organization, which is the California Department of Education through them, some other resources that I had, which were contacts through ACF reach and nine offices, different people like the UCSF children's health, other people like Bobby rose, and people that I had a relationship with. I was able to create policies and procedures that were specifically for operating during COVID. I had already had them developed in March, but I adapted them with the new guidance that we got from CDC, IHS, and ECS. I implemented those into the policies/procedures that I had developed in March and updated them. At that point in time, I had them reviewed. So I sent them to Indian health services to be reviewed, as well as ACS, Bobby Rose, and some other colleagues to make sure that it was going to be adequate. Once they were like, ‘yes, they're great, they look great’, I brought the team back into phase one who were coming back. We actually had two days on site without children to have training. So we did train specifically to operate during COVID. We really worked on how we were going to have separation of groups. We divided the outdoor classroom spaces. We clearly went over what it was going to look like throughout the day for drop off/pickup. So we closed our center entirely to families and we had our drop off location outside. The weather, pending of course, was beautiful here. So it's nice. We had dropped off in the outdoors. Each classroom opened their classroom outdoors and parents came to drop off wearing masks. They did health checks outdoors. We also did all of our checks and health checks electronically on our app that we have, which is right-well, and parents were able to answer a few simple questions through the electronic check in. That was part of our new strategies. But before we even brought kids on to the campus, we actually did what we called a car hop, which was parents signing up to come to Santa Fe in their car, while wearing masks, then we came to bring them all the updated policies and procedures that they also got electronically in advance with signed consent. They agreed to all of the new policies and procedures. We had answered any questions that they might have had about what things would look like differently and once we had them sign the consent, then they were able to bring their children back when we reopened. We reduced our group sizes and then we also shifted to a huge portion of our day being an outdoor classroom. We have natural outdoor classrooms and implemented that a lot more during COVID.

Interviewer:

Can you talk about how that compared to 2019, like, what kind of decrease you saw and how much it impacted the center’s finances?

Provider:

Yeah, that was a huge piece of the approval process to reopen, because the whole entire organization was shut down. So there weren't the same services that were available. We had to really come up with a budget that could show that we could operate with less department support, such as custodial maintenance, as well as being able to cover as much of the costs as possible with private pay funds to offset and grants because there was less revenue because their primary revenue came from the casino, and the casino was closed. So that was one of the biggest challenges in reopening is being able to have the funds to reopen.

Interviewer:

Can you talk a little more about how the casino funding works?

Provider:

That's the funding that comes from the tribe. So the casino, a certain portion of the revenue goes to Community Services departments, for there to be services, such as childcare. It comes into the program to offset the bottom line.

Interviewer:

Were there any grants that you applied for or received to help during the time that the center was closed or to make up for the lost revenue?

Provider:

I discovered that I would have to come up with additional revenue and some of the offsets to operate during COVID. There were a lot of higher costs, like disinfecting, reduction in classroom size, less actual attendance, less income, and the way that we served food. So that there were additional costs for food service and all of those things. I ended up finding a CDC grant that was available. First, we were told we weren't eligible for that grant, but I was able to dig a little deeper, do a little bit more research in contact fields and the people that I knew said, “Hey, you know, one of the things that's most important is that we're serving essential employees”. So in order for them to go back to work, we have to be open. In order for us to operate, we need to be able to have the funds to do PPE, hire staff, and to do additional cleaning, like custodial work. All of the different ways, while communicating with families, were like expanding our outdoor classrooms. We ended up applying for the grant, got permission to apply and we got it.

Interviewer:

Do you think you would have been able to keep your doors open without that help?

Provider:

No, not at all. Because at that time, we didn't have any of the additional care funds or any of the additional support funds that came through legislation for COVID. We did have our grants that we had for Child Care and Development and Early Headstart, Child Care Partnership. We hadn't started receiving funds for CCTR yet, so those were our primary funds as well as an offset for CACFP. That was extremely key in our ability to operate.

Interviewer:

Were you able to pay the staff while you were closed? And then also wondering if the same staff were able to come back or if you lost anybody?

Provider:

So unfortunately, no, they were all furloughed, and had to go on unemployment. But what we did do is offer everybody that was furloughed to come back when they could. There were a couple of people that remained furloughed for a longer amount of time, like one had a newborn, actually two did, and then they staggered back, later when they felt safer. It felt like there was a time for them to come back. I do not think that we didn’t get any staff back with the exception of one, who was already on leave before COVID hit or right at that time, so she was going to be on leave. But we also have had a lot of longevity at that time with the staff. We were very fortunate, but now we have lost some staff since we've opened.

Interviewer:

Did that seem different then normal staff turnover?

Provider:

Oh, yeah because we don't really have a lot of staff turnover, but I think we've had more during COVID. I mean, of course, unfortunately, the amount of pay that early learning and care teachers and providers get is not, you know, really high, even with the supplemental unemployment funds that they got. Oftentimes they were taking more stay at home work then coming to work, which is a sad state to say, but it's true. Obviously, they were making more staying at home and they weren't getting an adequate living wage, but that's just the way that the market and our country works right now for childcare. People have to fear having interaction with groups, and especially if they have somebody that they're caring for at home that has a compromised situation. I mean, they did feel like that they were possibly jeopardizing others at home by being here at work.

Interviewer:

Have you been able to replace the stuff that you lost?

Provider:

We are having trouble with that and we continue to struggle with that. So we've been looking at different things now that we finally have some of the additional funds that are coming in. We're making plans for there to be increases to wages, hazard pay for the different things that work [flooring?], put in place to make a bigger incentive, and as well as those that are currently here to be able to compensate them as well for those funds.

Interviewer:

Have you noticed any changes in the demand for care?

Provider:

Yeah, it's interesting. I just had this conversation with somebody, because everybody's kind of like, “oh, wow, I had all of your families that wanted to come back”. That doesn't sound the same as what we've been hearing, but what we did find was that the majority of our families wanted to come back because they were already enrolled and had a relationship with us. But as we might have had openings, or we've expanded our classroom sizes, families that were on our waitlist, were more reluctant to come into care. So we went through our wait list because usually toddler care, we just have a huge wait list for that. So we were excited that we were able to get some more toddler openings. To expand on that we went through our waitlist pretty quickly to the other people that were more at the bottom of the waitlist because the people that were next in line said, “Oh, I said, We'll wait” and we'll check back in like six months. So that shifted the sense. I mean, I think we've doubled our waitlist now. Today alone, I've gotten like five calls. So there's definitely all of a sudden, a huge interest in getting children back into childcare settings. One of the things that we feel is a huge demand still is school age, but we don't offer school aged care. But of course, with the schools, some of them being completely closed, parents needing to work, there was a lot of demand for those kids that needed to have support when they weren't actually in class or online in class. So we did, we did help with that virtual model for the kindergarten groups, we did a kindergarten pod, and did the virtual teaching and learning here and so that was popular. When we were closed, everybody kind of panicked about what they were going to do. Across the board, every single one of our classrooms had a waitlist. So zero to five, we had a waitlist for every age.

Interviewer:

Were there any other program changes that you had to make when you reopened?

Provider:

So again, that big shift to expand our outdoor classrooms, with eating outdoors, often health checks outdoors, family teacher conferences through zoom, and teacher interviews through zoom. We also have done a family engagement, which is something that we've really had to be creative about. We've done a lot of things like this. I guess, we've always had a farm stand where parents could just take fresh local produce home with them. We did like a grab bag, that would have like a recipe and the ingredients in it to make something at home that was just separate so that it was safer. We did the same thing, for just, like prep fresh produce that we would send home with families and brown paper bags that they could just grab and go.

We also did “take and make” activities at home so that families could take an activity or an art project or a STEM activity home with them and work on it at home. We still continue to do some distanced learning for families that aren't ready to come back into the program, but we still are supporting them right now with some distanced learning. Some of those things, of course, are comprehensive services and really supporting families with additional support for mental health. So we've done a lot of getting resources to families if they need to be able to talk to somebody else and get something that was more supportive of either an individual or their whole entire family's mental health and that's been a big piece. So many different things that I think have been probably something that we'll keep, because they've been really effective and parents have really talked about how much they appreciate that. We've been creative about spaces for families to come on site where we could do a six foot distance with masks on conversation if they didn't feel like Zoom was enough. Those kinds of things we didn’t do right in the beginning of the pandemic, but more like now.

Interviewer:

What was this experience like for you, being the director of a childcare program during the pandemic?

Provider:

One of the things I think that was really hard was just really trying to make sure that I was communicating with everybody openly that I was getting the answers, for families, for staff, having everything in place, that would create the safest space possible there. Yeah, there was pressure and there was a sense of this huge responsibility. I think that has gotten better, because I think that we've done a lot of things to help us feel safe and to help parents feel safe. But, I think that there was also a lot of guilt, you know, like involved with, “will staff be able to get back to work, will they have a paycheck? Will we be able to keep our center open? Will families come and be here? And what happens if we have an outbreak and how much of that is based off of what we may have missed or didn't do?” Fortunately, we've never had ,knocking on wood, an outbreak here. We've had a few isolated incidents where we've had a close up of a classroom but not had any outbreaks at all within the center and also the sense of just having less staff. I find myself as well as our assistant director in the classrooms and the ratios a lot more. So, you know, you're changing PPE, you're doing lots of hand washing, you're doing lots of disinfecting pain. We had to take on the center planning ourselves because we didn't quite have a custodial staff at first, but then we finally got somebody on. So it was overwhelming. It continues to be overwhelming and the community that we live in, there is a very mixed approach to how people feel about COVID. So resistance to wearing masks all of a sudden, your relationship based approach, became more of a policing approach. It's really hard to balance that when you need people to do what you're asking them to do for policies and procedures, but you also are working with them on a relationship basis for their child and their family. So there's messages with that, that became challenging. Then keeping up on policies and procedures, you have a responsibility to do research and stay up with the times so you don't get behind on that, which is also tricky when, I mean, basically, you're put on the spot, as a professional that has always relied on others to give you guidance on regulations and policies that would keep children safe. All of those people no longer have answers so you're really left alone with very little guidance, and everybody in the country was like that. But then you have this huge push from state legislation and federal government to get open and serve families and to be those that are serving the community and the people that need to go back to work are essential workers, yet, you're not given the same respect as the the K through 12 community who cannot even stepped foot on campus. And yet, you're told that you're going to barely get minimum wage, but you have to go back and you have to be frontline. You have to have resources, yet the same people that are sending their kids to you have so many more things to support, even though you're caring for their children. It was very frustrating and very mixed messages and I think that was a really huge misstep by our country.

Interviewer:

Do you feel like you had enough cleaning supplies and PPE and other resources to keep everybody safe?

Provider:

The beginning, when we first were seeing the pandemic calm, thankfully, we had a little bit of time to order a few things that we had here, because once it hit mid June, we reopened, there was nothing available. It was impossible, we had to rely on bleach for a while, which then after a while, you couldn't even find bleach, and a lot of people would say “oh, well, you know, Walmart has diapers or whatever” and we're like, “okay, which Walmart” because we go to Walmart or go online, and they're completely depleted. So it's just dependent on where you were, you know, there were certain things we just couldn't get. So we had to be very innovative and had to switch from what we usually use. What we were hearing was recommended to go to what was available and it took a while to be able to build up the PPE we had so we had to be, you know, reliant on.. There were certain agencies that were really helpful like for us, having the Department of Social Services remember to reach out to travel childcare was really important. Indian health services were key. I know there was a big push for the r&r to have resources and have PPE but we really didn't receive any of that. I mean, I think we got like, you know, very minimal. There's no way we could have relied on that for us to open, which, you know that's not the point, but it just wasn't effective for us to have to rely on.

So we just really found creative ways and approaches and used the resources that we found that were helpful for us. And I just named it, CDE, which did as much as they possibly could to get resources into the local level communities, but you relied on the local level to reach out to, and in our case travel childcare. So we had to really kind of find our own sourcing. So I think it would have been a huge, huge, like quadruple more increase, but we had that CDC grant, and then we eventually ended up getting additional care funds that could buy that PPE and that was really key and offsetted that huge cost to the program.

Interviewer:

What would you say has been the most challenging of being the director of a childcare program during the pandemic?

Provider:

I would say just being able to prioritize time and really be adaptable to juggle all of the new requirements and now all the new funding streams because it was already a lot to juggle. Now you have all of these new regulations, new funds, new reporting requirements, new monitoring and the reports have a lot of narrative. I feel like all of your time is now spent on that and taken more away from actual programming.

Interviewer:

What would you say has been most helpful for you this past year?

Provider:

I think a lot of the community of learning groups like when we come together without necessarily somebody talking to us, but more of a sharing and collaboration, like the community of practice, the community of learning, those groups have the most helpful.