WEST CHATHAM — When the Rocking Unicorn Nursery School opens its doors to students on Sept. 14, as it’s done for the last 40 years, there will still be loads of storybooks, art supplies and colorful toys. But there will also be masks, hand sanitizing stations and all sorts of special provisions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Each morning, youngsters will line up on the socially-distanced footprints on the front steps, and one by one, they’ll get a health evaluation and parents will complete a health questionnaire. Preschool owner Gretchen Kolb Cauble will clear each student to attend, and then call the teachers by walkie-talkie to have them welcome kids to one of two separate classrooms.
“Then they’ll wave at the waving window,” Cauble said, and the day will begin.
Founded in 1981 and owned by Cauble for the last 32 years, Rocking Unicorn has been closed since March because of the pandemic. It is typically licensed for 24 students, but guidance from state regulators now requires 42 square feet of space per child, with room for a six-foot buffer between kids. Youngsters must also be in cohorts of 10 or less, each with their own staff and a separate bathroom. There’s nothing in the rules that requires businesses to double their staff, “but you absolutely had to,” she said. Because of space constraints, “The Rock,” as it’s called, now can have just 19 students.
Those requirements have put a serious financial squeeze on private child care providers, and Cauble said four of the other preschools on the Lower Cape have closed for good. They’ve lost some families – “One moved to Vermont” where social distancing is easier – but gained others who have newly moved to the Lower Cape. Other parents are waiting a few more weeks before sending their youngsters to school, but few spots remain at Rocking Unicorn or other schools.
Cauble said it’s tough enough for school districts to comply with state regulations, but it’s particularly challenging for small businesses like her own, which had to formulate their reopening plans without much assistance.
“The interim regulations changed five times over the summer,” she said. Still, Cauble and her husband, a retired deputy police chief with experience in emergency management, managed to pull together a plan that allowed the state Department of Early Education and Care to re-license the school. Cauble also had the facility inspected early by the town’s building, health and fire departments.
Meeting the state-mandated requirements, and the high expectations of kids and parents, has required some resourcefulness. There’s a one-way traffic flow through the building, and a toddler gate now separates the large classroom area into two classrooms, with no mixing between children in different cohorts. When it’s time for the playground, one cohort plays on the left side, while the other side plays on the right; the two are separated by some snow fencing. Next play time, the cohorts switch sides.
They even tapped a website that provides equipment for long-haul truck drivers and found a portable outdoor hand-washing station for the playground. All surfaces are cleaned regularly, and the bathrooms are cleaned and sanitized after each use. They even purchased special masks with clear windows so they can convey smiles and other social cues to students. The process is labor- and equipment-intensive. But teachers and child care providers like Cauble know how important child care is both for the local economy and for parents and youngsters who’ve been socially isolated.
“Kids and parents are going to come back fragile,” she said. But Cauble said she’s not afraid of becoming infected, and stands ready to meet kids’ needs, even if that means providing hugs when necessary. She’s met with parents prior to the start of school, reinforcing the safety protocols and the contingency plans for what happens if a student or a staff member is exposed to the virus. It won’t be an ordinary school year, but Cauble is eager to see her kids again.
“It’s been a wild ride,” she said. “But I’m up for the challenge.”