Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children


“This is the pen you are going to use,” Maria Gonzalez Moeller — wearing a mask and holding a thermometer — says to families who walk into the lobby of the Early Learning Center run by The Community Group in Lawrence, Mass. “When you’re done with the pen, you put it down here.”

The pen, she explains, is what a parent or caregiver will use every time they sign their children in or out of emergency child care.

To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, no one else will touch the pen.

“It’s the visual impact of the mask and the pen and thermometer that gives parents confidence,” Moeller, The Community Group’s CEO, says. Yes, this is a historically disastrous pandemic, but Moeller and her staff are going to make sure that the kids in their care have a good day.

“Parents are not allowed to see the building, but I offer them the option of meeting the teacher through a window,” Moeller explains.

The Early Learning Center has a license to provide emergency child care for children ages 2.9 to 10 years old.

“As soon as the opportunity to offer emergency child care became an option, we thought about it, and we decided it matched our mission,” Moeller says. “We were already a licensed childcare center, and we had strong connections with the community, so we opened our doors.”

In the first weeks of this work, it was largely health care providers who brought their children to TCG, where they were cared for by teachers working 10-hour shifts.

Strict routines — wearing masks, constant cleaning, careful rules – kept things running. Large classrooms hold small groups of children to allow for social distancing.

“Classroom, bathroom, and outside,” Moeller says, summarizing the kids’ schedule. There’s also, “Breakfast, snack, and lunch.”

To limit exposure, siblings are kept in the same classrooms, and teachers stay with the same kids. After one group of kids plays in the playground, the building’s custodian cleans all the high-touch areas and surfaces to prepare for the next group of kids. The playground is cleaned three times a day. Doorknobs are frequently wiped down. And each group of kids has their own designated bathroom.

The children get to have fun. They receive individual activity buckets. As with the pen, children get their own buckets, their own Lego, puzzles, and art supplies. They get their own ingredients to make their own slime.

Early on, however, a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. What sounds like a disaster became a chance to follow the policy. Parents were alerted. Public health officials and the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) were informed. The program was temporarily shut down. The building was aggressively cleaned. Then it reopened.

No child has gotten sick.

“We do share the risks with parents, but many of them work in health care, so they already know. We still work hard to be transparent.”

And the program has grown — from five or six kids to more than 20 – and stretched itself.

“Over time we’ve grown more creative without sacrificing safety,” Moeller says.

Masks are still required, and parents are asked to reinforce this with children. But now Moeller signs family out so there’s less focus on sanitized pens.

Academics were very important before the pandemic, but now Moeller says, there has to be more of a focus on child care.

“We never allowed screen time before, but now we let kids watch a short video as a reward. We never served sugar, but now we say, maybe it would be nice to have some ice cream.”

It’s an expensive program. State funding only covers part of the cost. TCG covers the rest, so it can do what works best.

And then there are the many lessons learned about how to provide child care in the middle of a pandemic.

“We were a little concerned about the risks of offering emergency child care, but our teachers stepped up, and actually doing the work has decreased our concerns.”

Moeller shortened the ten-hour shifts to two five-hour shifts. This meant exposing children to an additional staff person, but it also kept teachers fresh and strong and better able at the end of the day to help children comply with safety rules.

“Asking children to maintain six feet of separation at all times is not realistic,” Moeller says, “So we knew we had to bear down on the second, third, and fourth layers of protection, masks and hand washing and gloves and cleaning surfaces – in addition to the six feet.”

What happens if a state policy doesn’t seem to work?

“I’m willing to make a phone call to EEC and ask, Why are we doing it that way?

Another important lesson? Pay attention to teachers and staff.

“They come up with a lot of ideas. So, I check in with them. And I email them regularly to thank them for being part of this, because it is optional for them.

“I know some programs are struggling with finding staff, but as an organization, we are very mission-driven, so anybody who works at our organization is mission driven, but we still check in and we make sure that with all the ongoing changes and the messages from the Governor, that they are always aware of what’s happening.”

For now, the Early Learning Center has been paying staff a stipend, in addition to their salary, to compensate them for the risks they’ve taken on. But once the state’s whole early education and care system opens, providing this stipend will no longer be financially feasible.

The most rewarding part of the work?

“Kids love being here. They don’t want to leave. They love interacting with the other children. They’ve made friends. And they push their moms to pick them up as late as possible.”

What’s Moeller most proud of?

“The teachers. They decided to stay and do this work. Nothing happens without them. And now it’s clearer to people that teachers are essential workers.”

Not only is there joy in Moeller’s voice, there’s the ring of feeling lucky.

The pandemic, yes, it’s awful. But the chance to help families is invigorating.

“Running an emergency child care program has given our teachers and staff confidence. This was a really good pilot for us in terms of trying new strategies that are going to become the new normal.”

Moeller is prepared for that new normal. She takes every phone call from parents, speaking to them in English and Spanish, to “keep her finger on the pulse of the situation” and to have “nurturing” conversations. She would like to take care of infants, but knows that will require more preparation.

Some lessons policymakers can learn from TCG: invest in children and teachers; compensate programs for the full cost of their services; develop flexible policies; recognize that in a COVID-19 world, Massachusetts will need child care and family care.

“You have to take body temperature, but you also have to take the mental temperature of your staff and your families,” Moeller says.

So you’re prepared for whatever comes next.