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In reopening UMC preschools, one size doesn't fit all

In reopening UMC preschools, one size doesn't fit all

COVID-19 Missions and Outreach

COVID-19 has forced United Methodist Churches throughout the Florida Conference into hard decisions about how to conduct worship services, but the dilemma doesn't end there.

Many churches also operate daycare centers and preschools, and with the new school year at hand they faced a simple truth: The challenges are as varied as the churches seeking answers. 

No single plan fits every situation. Church leaders meet, discuss, gather data, and seek outside input. They can take all those steps, but ultimately they have to decide what to do.

Open? Or not? 

The administration at Manatee UMC in Bradenton faced that when deciding what to do about its thriving preschool.

It decided to remain open because that's what the community needed.

"We have a strong program," Pastor James Martin said. "Our preschool never closed because so many of our parents are essential workers."

Pastor James Martin

But the next decision made by that church showed how complex life in pandemic can be. Just because part of the church is open doesn't mean the whole facility can be.

"We tried to restart our in-person worship services with some very strong guidelines, but I shut that down after only two services because of the surge in positive cases," Martin said.

"The church sits in the middle of Manatee’s hot zone because we have Manatee Memorial Hospital and four nursing homes nearby, two of which made the news for the number of cases. While that doesn’t directly affect our program, perception does. So we took extra precautions to reassure our parents."

But leaders at the Beach UMC in Jacksonville Beach came to the opposite conclusion. Its Early Learning Center, which has been around for 40 years, will remain closed for the 2020-21 school year.

"This decision was not arrived at easily, nor without a great deal of discussion and prayer. The leadership of Beach Church takes seriously its desire to raise up the next generation of leaders. Our history has shown our desire to expose your children to the love of Jesus and the hope we have in him," Executive Director of Administration Don Jacobs said in a message to the church.

"We looked at several options to try and keep our ELC open. In every scenario, we felt the environment of a loving, relational organization would be compromised. The new normal would not allow movement or personal interaction that is so important to young children."

That "new normal" will force more changes than just in the classrooms.

For instance, at Anona UMC in Largo, the approximately 130 children who attend will find new procedures in place when the Child Development Center opens on August 31.

A re-opening task force, which included a medical team, guided the decision to transform the program around the needs of the families it serves. That includes adherence to strict protocols for cleaning, disinfecting and many other new procedures. 

Anona UMC

There are new drop-off and pick-up procedures which includes no adults in the buildings.  It's all done curbside.

Staff members will wear masks and undergo COVID screening every morning when they report to work.  In addition to temperature checks, they will answer a COVID questionnaire asked and maintain a daily log of screening results. 

Wristbands will be worn after screening to indicate the staff member is approved to be at work. 

Besides social distancing, classes will not exceed eight children and two staff members. There will be no intermingling of staff or children. Also, there will be no cross contamination with church staff and ACDC staff in buildings.  

At St. John's UMC in Winter Haven, about 80 children attend the daycare, preschool, and after-school programs, which have been open since March 30. 

After the preschool board discussed options during a conference call, the church decided to proceed.

"Our congregation has been key in keeping the daycare open. Their financial generosity and donations of supplies has kept the school afloat and the teachers employed during challenging times," Senior Pastor David Averill said.

"The Payroll Protection Program also made a huge difference to keep our teachers employed in spite of a drop in enrollment. We went down to seven children after March 30 at one point. The enrollment picked back up in June and reached 80 children in late July."

Like Anona, the church enacted extensive safety measures.

"Where do I begin," Director of Preschool and Children's Ministries Amanda Green said. 

"We start with temperature checks in the morning for the children. Parents also fill out daily a health screening asking about travel and exposure to COVID-19. We do not allow parents access to classrooms and facilities. They drop their children off at the doorway. We practice frequent and vigorous handwashing for children and staff. We have reduced classroom ratios according to DCF guidelines."

The facility is thoroughly cleaned each morning and evening, and there are procedures to keep from crowding children and mixing them in different classrooms. Teachers carry disinfectant wipes with them all day and wipe down toys and playground equipment after their class is finished.

"The smaller ratios and crowds have made the difference in my opinion," Green said.

First Lakeland UMC faces smaller ratios as well.

Its bustling preschool normally has enough capacity for 132 children. Currently, about 50 are enrolled, according to Cherry McClellan, Director of First Steps Preschool.

It reopened August 3 after church leaders met several times to devise a safety and operations plan. The process was rigorous.

"Once that plan was adopted it was taken to the strategic planning committee for approval," McClellan said.
"After the strategic planning committee gave its approval, the proposal was sent to families. Families then had to agree to accept the proposal before their child was able to return to the preschool upon reopening."

While planning and precautions can mitigate the virus threat, this remains a perilous time for students, teachers and staff members. COVID-19 has been unpredictable, and everyone understands they can't let their guards down for even a moment.

"This has been really stressful for teachers. I am also concerned about learning. This pandemic is a traumatic event for children that they will remember for the rest of their lives. They can't put words to it yet. But what they have been through is historic," Green said.

"I feel like children are better off in our facility than just staying at home. We do our best to keep them safe. Preschool helps their emotional and social development. At this point, though, I am just taking it day to day, and leaving the future in God's hands. Living for every moment because we don't know what tomorrow might bring."

-- Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for

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