This story was first published in the Addison Independent.
BRISTOL — Every day, before they head off to toil on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, parents in the Mount Abraham Unified School District who’ve been designated “essential workers” drop their children off at Bristol Elementary School. There staff in the district’s Expanded Learning Program deploy a powerful combination of wisdom, talent, heart — and a little 5-Town magic — to keep them safe from the dangers in the broader world.
The program is called MAUSD Essential Persons’ Childcare. It’s free to families and it officially opened on March 23.
Nine-year-old Bristol resident Ella LaRose has attended since day one.
“Not to be overly dramatic, but it’s life-saving to have this program,” said Ella’s mom, Erin LaRose, who co-leads the COVID-19 Contact Investigation Team in the Vermont Department of Health’s Epidemiology Heath Survey Division. Erin’s husband (and Ella’s dad), Brett, is an Operations and Logistics Section Chief with Vermont Emergency Management, as well as chief of the Bristol Volunteer Fire Department).
“Brett and I are both out straight, working 12-hour days,” Erin LaRose continued. “This is making it possible for us to do our jobs.”
But sending Ella back to the very school she had been evacuated from the week before wasn’t easy at first.
“We had some hesitations,” LaRose said, “especially about the possibility for exposure every day.”
LaRose talked through her fears with Mandy Chesley-Park, director of the Expanded Learning Program, or ELP. Chesley-Park coordinates the childcare program.
“After she explained everything to me I was completely at ease,” LaRose said.
Chesley-Park oversees operations of the ELP, whose magic, it turns out, springs from the staff’s great diligence and rigorous attention to detail.
“Our (MAUSD) nurses come in for two shifts a day,” Chesley-Park explained. “They’re basically the sentinels at the doors, following all the protocols and regulations, giving all of us this sense and comfort and safety.”
For two hours in the morning those nurses screen every single child and staff member who comes into the building, checking temperatures and conducting interviews.
“How are you doing?” they ask. “Have you had any of (COVID-19) symptoms? Have you been around anyone with those symptoms? Any respiratory issues?”
In the afternoon the nurses come back and screen children a second time and then screen ELP staff arriving for the afternoon shift.
Meanwhile, the MAUSD custodial staff comes through the building every two hours — “they’re actually probably here more than every two hours,” Chesley-Park said — and disinfects surfaces, doorknobs, bathrooms, table tops, chairs, “anything that may have been touched.”
But that’s not all.
“In the middle of all this, our staff are disinfecting any kind of utensil, tool or resource a child may have used,” Chesley-Park said.
And now, following recent health department recommendations, they’re all wearing protective cotton facemasks, which were made and donated to the program by a community member.
MAUSD Essential Persons’ Childcare sorts the children, who range in age from 3 to 14, into groups of five and assigns each group to a room with two adults.
“State and national regulations mandated that there be no more than 10 bodies in a room and that there be 6 feet between us,” Chesley-Park said. “We tried that out and we thought, Nope. That’s actually too many. It already feels unnatural to keep kids 6 feet apart, and to put that many kids into a space just wasn’t feasible … or humane.”
The program’s strict ratio of five kids to two adults seems to be working much better, she said. And group assignments remain relatively fixed.
“Some of these kids don’t even know if one of their friends is in another classroom,” she said. “We don’t mix, and we don’t move into big groups — ever.”
Staff are very protective of the space, Chesley-Park said.
“If there’s a child who needs help moving into their classroom, we can screen the parent and then they can move through hallways, but otherwise it’s the same people coming here each day. We’re not introducing new people. There are no volunteers coming in and out. It’s shut down.”
“The program is designed to remove as much outside anxiety as possible,” LaRose said. “Ella loves to go there and she hasn’t a care in the world.”
Ella normally attends Bristol Elementary and participates in ELP programs, so she’s already familiar with the building and the staff, which really helps.
In fact, familiarity is one of the key ingredients to the program’s success, Chesley-Park said.
“A lot of these kids — with the exception of those who are coming from the Middlebury area or Shoreham or Vergennes — will know someone right off the bat,” she explained. “The Expanded Learning Program has a strong program in each of our 5-Town schools, and we try to make someone from each of those schools available to the kids here, so there is immediately a familiar face.”
And there’s another key ingredient.
“The other thing that’s been happening is that there is such sweet, positive enthusiasm projected by our staff,” Chesley-Park said. “I think part of that is because we all need this … There is a real sense of celebration in this space that’s kind of hard to translate into words.”
Teacher-leader Jennifer Gordon agrees.
“Being part of this program right now is incredible,” said Gordon, who has worked for the ELP in various capacities for more than five years. “If you ask anyone here it’s the highlight of our day. I think that if I couldn’t come here every day and be with my people and be with these kids my life wouldn’t have as much joy as it does right now.”
Gordon has felt the same anxiety as everyone else in these turbulent times, she said, but jumping right into this program, which came together quickly, has helped to ease that anxiety.
“I’m incredibly thankful for the people who are here using their talents and skills to make a really scary time for these kids feel safe and fun and joyful, and to remind them that they’re still engaged in a community and that that’s still important.”
LaRose, too, is impressed with ELP staff.
“They are tremendous as individuals,” she said. “The program has strategically hired really well.”
ON THE GROUND
“What’s happening on the ground (out there) is that we’re facing an unprecedented public health crisis,” Chesley-Park said. “But I would love for people to visualize what is happening in here. The most important piece is that these precious souls can come in here and leave the outside behind for a while, and I feel like we have absolutely succeeded at that.”
Chesley-Park’s next words caught in her throat.
“I’m getting a little emotional about it,” she said with a laugh.
After a moment she continued, changing tack.
“We have drones flying around, kids are out playing soccer — anything we can think of that doesn’t include contact or touching anything — they’re even building forts outside, they’ve been landscaping, they’ve been gardening, building benches for the gardens, flying kites and making their own kites, dying rice, they’ve created an entire mini-golf program, and there has been so much dancing, so much dancing! — we have all these kids’ dance-instruction videos — and there’s been so much singing, and cooking in the classrooms, energy bars, and there have been bird feeders and chalk drawings and every kind of art you can imagine, and trees hanging off the walls.”
She laughed. Maybe about the trees. Or the sudden energy of her words. Or the poetic crescendo she’d just hit.
“The magic that is happening here for these kids is because of staff preparation and the staff are prepared because they’re joyful when they come in. They want to be here. I have to kick them out at the end of the day. They have designed this space and it transcends what is happening outside these walls.”
Reach Christopher Ross at email@example.com.