Voice of an Early Childhood Director through the Pandemic Lens

Emilu Alvarez, program director of the NAEYC-accredited Creative Learning Center in Miami, has had to make some hard decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many child care directors in Florida, Emilu was overwhelmed with trying to maintain financial stability while shouldering the responsibilities of caring for children. Emilu shares her story below:

On March 14, 2020, (which feels like years ago) I remember sending a message to the parents in my program and telling them we were fine, that we were taking all precautions to avoid the spread of this epidemic. The following week, as more concerns in the community arose, so did the absences of our children. We immediately started calling families if a child was absent. We were trying to reassure them that we were following guidelines. As a provider, I was feeling very alone.

I told my staff not to worry, that things would resume after spring break. We would use the break as a week to clean and quarantine, but we should be okay after that. During this time, the public schools announced they would not return after spring break. I knew we were going through some very uncharted times.

Our mayor left it up to child care programs on what we chose to do. After 28 years as director of a NAEYC-accredited program, I have always felt I had guidance and answers for all our dilemmas. This time, I had none! I was devastated. I could only think of my children. Who would take care of them and where would they go? Who would assist families that had no extended family in Florida?

In addition to the children at my center, I worried about my staff. How would they get paid? As a non-profit and faith-based program, we do not pay unemployment tax. I tried to negotiate with my vendors to defer payments. Parents sent donations in lieu of payments, but it was not nearly enough revenue.

To adapt to the “new normal” and to keep my program open, we began teaching online (all new because we are a play-oriented, hands-on program). In addition, we provided home visits and read stories nightly on Zoom to 280 children and their families.

Like many child care programs, we applied for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan that helps businesses keep their workforce employed during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. We did not receive PPP in the first phase, and I had to call 53 of my staff and furlough them in one day. This is a staff who have been with me for 20-something years—a staff I have trained, mentored, cultivated, and sponsored in their professional growth. I gave them little hope except that when the money comes, they would be paid what they are owed.

We wanted to reopen our center on May 4, but the results from a survey told me parents were scared and would rather stay virtual. We received the PPP loan during this time, however, and we were able to pay our vendors, our health benefits, and our staff.

On June 8, I reopened my center, but sadly was unable to bring back all staff due to new COVID-19 restrictions. We spent more than $2,000 for four weeks of cleaning supplies and equipment needed to make our opening a safe and healthy one.

I am hopeful that things will change for the better, because our field is strong and resilient. I am encouraged by the community of families who have faith in us and how they have embraced my decisions and protocols. I know there will be challenges and there will be more uncharted waters to ride. Sometimes I feel like my boat is so small, but I know we will get through this together.