Teaching Director at Quarry Hill School, and co- director of the Addison Country Early Childhood Directors Network
“It’s a very real thing to be kept up at night” says Su White, teaching director of Quarry Hill, a small private school based center in Middlebury which accommodates up to 35 children. As a co-leader of the Addison Country Early Childhood Directors Network, Su plays a significant role in offering support to her fellow early childhood educators (ECE). Currently meeting weekly, the group has built strong bonds and deep relationships over the years, which have proved vital during these strange and surreal times of COVID-19.
Acknowledging that COVID-19 took us all by storm, Su was not surprised that it took a while for clear guidance from the governor and the health to become streamlined. She relays that the messages were sometimes confusing and contradictory, and it was at this stage that the cohesiveness of the group came to the forefront. Since late March, the group has become more connected and grounded in their relationships. “The safety net of our group became really important for all of us.” Out of the chaos, the group found comfort and strength in one another. They reacted nimbly and remained (mainly, she quips) calm and measured in their response to the changing guidelines.
Besides offering emotional and social support during a time of physical distancing, the group has supported one another professionally, guiding and informing each other in a variety of concrete and practical ways. Su laughed wryly when she shared the amount of time the group spent interpreting the COVID-19 guidelines. A sense of deep trust underpins their collective thinking, which led the director’s group through some very anxious times. “What if I get an email from X, what is my response going to be?” “what is it going to be like having PPE in a childcare setting? “What is our capacity to safely and effectively uphold these new measures in a childhood setting?”
The support network became a blessing, a space to organize thinking, ensuring the group could all sleep better at night. The group spent time forging statements and reaching a collective position on how to move forward as professional ECE practitioners. It was recognized very early on that it was imperative to be at the table when decisions were made and to become part of the conversation around appropriate practice. She is proud to highlight the collective manner in which the group galvanized, swiftly creating a task team to respond, advise and act upon the new guidelines.
What became apparent very early on to the whole group was the importance of early childhood education and care: realizing that the economy rides on the back of early childhood education. Without a strong response from their colleagues, the group knew it would be hard to move forward as a workforce. To date, Vermont has been the only state to provide financial support to the field of ECE, responding quickly with measures to help mitigate the financial burden school-based programs and early educators were facing. Without such measures, Su knows that many more school-based programs would have disappeared without a trace. This financial support provided short term relief, and the group have a deep sense of gratitude for this recognition. However, the future remains uncertain.
Challenges moving forward into the new normal
The latest guidance for K-12, with the introduction of a hybrid teaching model where children will be in school two days a week and learning remotely for three days, raises questions for us all: what is best for families? What if parents can’t get back to work because their children are only in school part-time? What about ECE and K-12 educators and teachers who have school age children who are unable to be at home alone? How does this impact our staffing levels? The proposed hybrid model creates more questions than firm answers around children’s needs.
“The collective is acutely aware that our entire economic system rides on the back of an effective early childcare system. This is the time to talk about the issues that we face today around early childcare and the weekly meetings create a space for that to happen.” Su states that “the time [to address these issues] is now.” There is a recognition that the post-COVID-19 normal needs to be a new normal and needs to be a ‘normal’ that is inclusive of the voices of our ECE professionals. This period in our history has provided opportunities to highlight and address issues such as healthcare for ECE professionals (and everyone), paid medical family leave, paid time off, compensations and benefits. “What we need to come out of COVID-19 is not only the understanding that our system relies on functional early care and learning systems, and especially a system that works for the ECE professionals.”
Su highlights the importance of maintaining a focus on the importance of taking care of ourselves as parents, educators, and professionals. Carving out time for self-care in the midst of uncertainty and broken routines is imperative, and to this end, Su has spent a lot of time in her garden, scheming and dreaming. She recognizes this important ‘self-work’ has helped her retain a glass half full approach in her work.
The Quarry Hill team has spent much of the summer creating a practical and effective way to return to school, creating a plan about which she is cautiously optimistic and excited. Quarry Hill has created a curriculum that works for them and their community which includes opening as an outside space in September. Although this fresh and innovative thinking poses new questions for her and her team, including how to ensure that children can be kept warm/cool, stayed shaded and hydrated, she is well equipped and resilient enough to face these uncertainties.
As a lifelong learner, Su is up for new challenges, and faces them as she always does, with a smile, a keen sense of humor, a vast bank of professional expertise, and a feeling of hope in the face of the unknown. As far as the bigger picture is concerned, Su is hopeful that the new normal becomes a better normal, a place where early educators can support children in their earliest and most formative years with high quality care and learning, guiding and teaching our youngest Vermonters within safe, stable, and nurturing environments.