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Preschools seek to reassure parents amid enrollment drop in Hawaii

  • COURTESY THE CHILDREN’S HOUSE
                                Above, Easton, left, and Braxton Lee work on using kitchen utensils and vigorous hand washing at The Children’s House.

    COURTESY THE CHILDREN’S HOUSE

    Above, Easton, left, and Braxton Lee work on using kitchen utensils and vigorous hand washing at The Children’s House.

  • COURTESY SEAGULL SCHOOLS
                                Above, children at Seagull Schools in Kailua strengthen their writing and letter recognition with teacher Jaymie Nakama.

    COURTESY SEAGULL SCHOOLS

    Above, children at Seagull Schools in Kailua strengthen their writing and letter recognition with teacher Jaymie Nakama.

  • COURTESY ALLEN AKIONA JR.
                                Above, 3-year-olds Aiden Domingo, left, and Charlotte Rivera constructed something new at Holy Family Catholic Academy Early Learning Center last month.

    COURTESY ALLEN AKIONA JR.

    Above, 3-year-olds Aiden Domingo, left, and Charlotte Rivera constructed something new at Holy Family Catholic Academy Early Learning Center last month.

  • COURTESY THE CHILDREN’S HOUSE
                                Above, students stay focused during their independent work time.

    COURTESY THE CHILDREN’S HOUSE

    Above, students stay focused during their independent work time.

  • COURTESY THE CHILDREN’S HOUSE
                                Above, preschoolers get plenty of fresh air and outdoor play at The Children’s House in Pearl City.

    COURTESY THE CHILDREN’S HOUSE

    Above, preschoolers get plenty of fresh air and outdoor play at The Children’s House in Pearl City.

Preschools in Hawaii are back in action with strict protocols to keep children and staff safe from the coronavirus, but enrollment has dropped substantially.

Some parents are wary of sending their youngsters to school. Many have lost jobs and are hunkering down with their kids at home. Some don’t realize preschools are open, since many other campuses are not, or that subsidies are available. On certain campuses, physical distancing has restricted enrollment.

It all adds up to a challenge for preschools, which operate on thin financial margins already and face added costs due to pandemic requirements.

“It’s been a very slow restart— we’re still at about 55% of normal capacity,” said Megan McCorriston, executive director of Seagull Schools, which reopened its five locations in May and is serving nearly 600 students.

“We still have places for children 18 months to five years,” she said. “The ones who have returned have been really happy that they did. I think initially there was that fear of the unknown.”

The pandemic cut enrollment at The Children’s House in Pearl City by roughly 40% to 122 preschoolers this fall, from more than 200 last year. Holy Family Early Learning Center near the airport saw its student body drop by more than half to 28 students from 60 last year.

“It’s parents not having jobs and, of course, some families are afraid to send their children back to school,” said Allen Akiona Jr., the center’s director. “It’s a challenging thing for us because we really want the children to be here in person to receive the social aspects of being in school.”

“I could speak for many preschool directors that we understand families are apprehensive about sending their little ones to school with what’s going on in our community,” Akiona said. “But we want them to have trust in us that we are following all the CDC guidelines and we are making it a very, very, very safe environment for everyone.”

Even tuition-free preschools are affected by the decline in enrollment. The state’s Executive Office on Early Learning opened seven new public preschool classrooms in August, expanding to 31 campuses statewide from 24 last year. But the total number of students attending actually shrank overall.

Just 239 students were enrolled on Sept. 1, compared to 449 last October, a 46% drop for the EOEL classrooms. No more than 10 children are in a group with a teacher and education assistant. Applications are still being accepted, as they are at many private preschools.

Safety measures against coronavirus at preschools include temperature and symptom checks, small and stable groups, constant cleaning and sanitizing, lots of hand washing, reconfigured classrooms and distancing. Masks are mandatory for staff but not for the youngest kids. And while preschool is about learning to share, children are more likely to have individual art supplies these days rather than communal play dough.

“We do a lot more cleaning than we used to,” said DJ Mira, who teaches at Seagull Schools in Kailua. “We have a rotation of toys, and we switch them out, sanitize them, spray our mats, wipe down the shelves. Our spray bottles get a lot of love throughout the day.”

And so do the children, she said, because that’s still a crucial part of the formula for preschool. Some of the 2-year-olds in Mira’s class are separating from their parents for the first time, which can be scary.

“With this age, it’s so difficult to do the distancing because they’re so young,” she said. “We do comfort them, we do hold their hands when they are sad, give them hugs when they need — then wash hands.”

All Catholic preschools and early education centers statewide are offering in-person, on-campus instruction this fall. Capacity, however, has been reduced by about 30% overall to accommodate social distancing and other health protocols, according to Betsey Gunderson, interim associate superintendent of Hawaii Catholic Schools.

The YMCA, which has been providing child care for essential workers since March, announced Thursday that it had received support from the city’s Coronavirus Relief Fund allowing it to lower tuition at its full-time Leeward YMCA Preschool in Waipahu to just $50 per week for children ages 2 to 4. For those in need, 100% financial assistance is available through Oct. 31.

Kama‘aina Kids, one of the state’s largest child care providers, stayed open throughout the pandemic. With the initial economic shutdown, its preschool enrollment plummeted from about 1,600 children to about 500, but it later built back up to 1,100.

“We never closed,” said Dana Vela, president of Kama‘aina Kids. “During the lockdown, child care was deemed an essential service. We supported our families. … Doctors and nurses and police officers and grocery store and utility workers — they can’t go to work unless we do.”

For many, that care has been a lifeline. Parent Shannon Yogi-Lee found it “overwhelming” when the pandemic started and she was doing her job as a social worker from home while juggling her twin 4-year-old boys and 6-year-old son.

Yogi-Lee was thankful to be able to sign them up for a summer program at Kama‘aina Kids in Mililani. And when school resumed in August, she happily brought her twins back to The Children’s House in Pearl City while her oldest began distance learning with Kamehameha Schools.

“Having the twins be able to go physically into school allows me to do my job and assist with distance learning with my older son,” she said. “I couldn’t do it any other way.”

She praised The Children’s House for its meticulous preparation and safety measures and said she felt “really secure” having her twins there.

“To me it seemed like they had thought through everything, from when we drop off our children through every aspect of their day,” Yogi-Lee said. “I can’t say enough great things about the steps they have taken. … I trust everyone there, every staff member. They are just so warm and giving.”

State data shows children are less likely to contract COVID-19 and their cases are generally milder. Youth aged 17 and under account for 22% of Hawaii’s population but 11% of COVID-19 cases, or 1,278 cases with just 5 hospitalizations, according to the Department of Health. There have been no deaths due to COVID-19 in anyone under age 30 in Hawaii so far.

A request made Tues­- day by the Honolulu Star- Advertiser to the Health Department for a breakdown of COVID-19 cases among children under age 5 was not fulfilled by week’s end.

Kamehameha Schools has been playing it especially safe, with all its preschoolers in distance learning, like the older students on its campuses. Teachers spent the summer creating Hawaiian culture-based digital content and attending training for online education, according to Vice President Wai‘ale‘ale Sarsona.

“The development of our youngest learners is so critical,” said Sarsona, who oversees 29 Kamehameha preschools. “In general, keiki meet online together at scheduled times throughout a school day to go through lessons, participate in activities and socialize. This accounts for a small part of the day. The rest of the day, keiki work on their activities that are in our KS Digital online platform.”

Kamehameha has been transparent about COVID-19 cases, posting an online chart that includes even students not on campus. Eight preschoolers have tested positive for the disease since April but none had been at school in the previous two weeks. So there was no potential for spread on campus.

Kama‘aina Kids, with 22 preschool locations open throughout the pandemic, had several cases associated with one site, including a staff member who was exposed elsewhere and children who had no symptoms but tested positive.

At Seagull Schools, one staff member was exposed to the disease outside of work and told to isolate at home. That employee later tested positive but was not on campus while potentially infectious.

Some preschools have received Paycheck Protection Program loans and other grants to help tide them through the pandemic. Overall, directors say their preschool teachers have shown great commitment to the children in their care, taking on new health and safety tasks on top of their regular duties.

“They keep coming back because they care about the kids,” McCorriston said. “We can’t pay them enough for what they do every day. I’ve been amazed.”

During the city’s most recent shutdown order, Todd Los Baños asked his preschool teachers if perhaps The Children’s House should temporarily close too.

“They all said we want to work,” said Los Baños, the president and principal. “Our teachers have been great. They understand the importance of early education and how the need is so great.”

A Christian school with a Montessori approach, the Children’s House has been in operation for 55 years, and is looking for better times ahead, like so many other preschools across the state.

“We’re quite frankly praying on how we are going to survive it,” Los Baños said. “It is at this point month to month. We can do it for now. Hopefully in January we can pick up more students.”

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