Experiences of CSU’s Early Childhood Center reflect wider challenges of childcare during a pandemic

Children laughing

When Colorado State University went virtual in March due to the spread of COVID-19, staff, families, and children of the CSU Early Childhood Center did not think being closed for two weeks would turn into 15. As the state of Colorado emerged from its stay-at-home order, it was clear that multiple changes would need to occur to reopen the ECC to keep staff, families, and children healthy.

The good news is that the ECC was able to reopen in early July by creating a plan to follow recommended public health guidance from national, state, and local public health agencies. The plan was approved by CSU’s Pandemic Preparedness Team, but reopening was just the beginning of the road to recovery for the center and the wider industry.

Missing their community

When the ECC temporarily closed, Executive Director Karen Rattenborg and the rest of the staff missed their time together as a community, but they continued to connect virtually with children and families.

“Early childhood educators are people-focused, and they are used to spending their days in very hands-on activities with children, colleagues, and parents,” said Rattenborg. “While many people who have desk jobs may have been able to find ways to accomplish their work under these remote conditions, for the teachers at the ECC it really challenged us to identify new and creative ways to provide support to the children and their families.”

During its closure, the ECC supported families by not charging any childcare tuition, while also continuing to pay its staff and providing remote services such as tip sheets, weekly communications, and video resources to the ECC families at no charge.

“I think this commitment to children and families during the closure reflects how unique and supportive of one another the ECC community is,” Rattenborg said.

Christy Eylar, parent and assistant director for International Student Services in the Office of International Programs, is thankful for the ECC.

“We have valued the ECC so much throughout our time there, starting almost eight years ago when our daughter was just 6 months old,” said Eylar. “It is incredibly difficult to leave your babies with someone else for so many hours every day, but we quickly realized that even though it was hard, we were leaving them in the hands of individuals who care deeply for the well-being of our children, and who were providing them with learning and social opportunities that they would not have otherwise. We will always be incredibly grateful for all of the creative, wise and loving individuals at the ECC who have helped to grow our two children into some pretty cool people. We missed the ECC a great deal when they were closed, and our lives have regained a sense of calm and functionality now that our son has been back. We got a reminder of the anxiety of life without the ECC last Monday, which was a snow day for both our children, but not for us. Yes, the ECC is incredibly important to us during these difficult times … somewhat of a life preserver!”

New normal

Now, due to COVID-19 public health recommendations for childcare centers, new guidelines have been implemented in the center. The ECC works closely with CSU public health officials, state licensing staff, and a nurse consultant to make sure they are staying up to date with public health protocols to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Staff members have worked closely with CSU facilities management to ensure that the ECC is held to high standards, just as the rest of the campus. They also have limited the number of people allowed in the building, only allowing paid ECC employees and enrolled children – no volunteers, student interns, or practicum students are on-site at this time. All drop-offs and pick-ups of the children now take place outside. Face masks are required for all staff and encouraged for children above the age of 3 – except during nap time.

“Handwashing has always been a big part of every day at the ECC, and now there is an increase in washing hands repeatedly throughout the day,” said Rattenborg.

Erica Harden has been part of the ECC family since her child was three months old.

“We have a 2-year-old, and like many parents, we were concerned with having our daughter back in group care during this difficult time,” said Harden. “We decided to return to group care because of the time and attention we saw the Early Childhood Center put into providing a safe, yet enriched, environment for children. ECC provided clear communication on the new public health guidelines, the reasons for these guidelines, and how they would be applied at the ECC. Additionally, they took time to educate and address parents’ concerns, including having a Zoom meeting with the school nurse to further explain guidelines and practices.”

The children of the ECC have been resilient and are transitioning to the new protocols with ease.

“In spite of all the adjustments we have made to re-open the ECC, there is a sense of ‘regular’ here, and it feels good,” said Rattenborg. “Children are enjoying one another as they engage in learning experiences both in the classrooms and outside at play. We know this is in large part due to the support of their parents and teachers. Parents are trusting us and the policies we have in place so that their children can be in a nurturing environment.”

Impact on CSU students

The ECC is not simply a program that offers early care and education to children, it is also a laboratory school in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies with a teaching and research mission that trains CSU students for careers working with children and families.

The limited number of people allowed in the building has had a drastic effect on learning experiences for CSU students. Before the pandemic, the ECC hosted more than 130 CSU students each year in practicums and internships, and 500 students each year completed observations in their observation booths. Today, they are supporting only a handful of CSU students through remote learning experiences.

“We are really needing to re-think how to approach the needs of CSU students as they complete internships, practicums, and observations remotely,” said Rattenborg.

Impacts of COVID-19 on the childcare industry

Parent with a childRattenborg knows firsthand the impacts childcare centers have dealt with because of the pandemic. Lower enrollment, both because of public health guidance limiting the number of people allowed in the building due to physical distancing requirements, as well as parents keeping their children home, has led to budget challenges.

“Between March and July, 60% or more of all childcare programs in the U.S. were closed due to the pandemic, and those that stayed open were at reduced capacity,” said Rattenborg. “Many of the childcare centers and preschools that managed to survive the shutdown are now struggling to keep their doors open, the ECC included. At this time, it is projected that 50% or more of all programs in the U.S. will close permanently as a result of this pandemic, resulting in the loss of 4.5 million childcare slots nationwide. I’ve seen statistics that predict that 55% of all childcare slots in Colorado could end up permanently gone as a result of the pandemic – that translates to about 80,000 slots in our state.”

Today, the ECC enrollment is close to 70% capacity, a big change for a center that typically has a years-long waiting list. The ECC budget is dependent upon revenue from the childcare tuition paid for by parents, which supports the salaries and benefits of their highly qualified teachers.

“Childcare regulations are very stringent, and we are required to maintain NAEYC standards for group size and teacher/child ratios; therefore staffing is a critically important aspect of our program,” said Rattenborg.

The ECC is currently making offers to new preschool-aged children, as its ability to stay open long term depends on maintaining a viable enrollment capacity. If families are interested in childcare at the ECC, they can get more information on the ECC website.

A look at the ECC via virtual tour

To make up for the inability to offer in-person tours of the classrooms and amenities offered at the ECC, a virtual tour was created to provide an in-depth look at the space. View the video below to receive a virtual tour guided by Rattenborg.


Video by Avery Martin

The Early Childhood Center is in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.