Valerie Trew Interviewed by Stephanie Parker
What was your job when the pandemic started?
I was the director of the Child Care and Learning Centre, so I needed to investigate what would be best for our staff, students and families. We host the 3rd year practicum in child studies here, so there were practicum students who were impacted. We also had co-op students in their placements and children who were impacted by the loss of their learning community, families who were impacted by the loss of childcare and of course staff were impacted as well. We did on-line programming. We would hold morning meetings with the classroom so that each educator would meet with their classrooms and in the afternoons they set aside time to have meetings with parents and/or children individually to talk about behavioural guidance, age appropriate responses to these changes and sometimes just to chat. We had to pivot in terms of the services we were providing and then we also had to make sure that we were still meeting the learning objectives of the practicum and co-op students.
For online versus in person, did you experience any events between then and now?
It was the early days, I remember we left on March 16th. I think we all said “Bye, see you in two weeks” and 6 months later we were still at home and for the first three months, we were doing online programming and I think it was a very positive experience. We were kind of in families’ homes, we were seeing families, and you know, moms or dads are working in the background, the children are having the morning meetings with their classrooms, there’s pets walking around, we met the animals, they did cooking and baking projects with the families, the educators were baking and the children were baking, there was some really beautiful stuff that was happening online. That could not continue indefinitely because we were of course paying our staff full time wages, we were not collecting fees from families from the day we closed, of course we weren’t collecting these from the families and so the time at the end of June, I think we did finally kind of close our programming and this was to give some predictability because for that entire time everyone was wondering: are we coming back next week? So there was that uncertainty if we were going to reopen. At that point, there was no way we were prepared to reopen, with the situation what it was, we didn’t know it was just going to get worse at that time, we just knew we weren’t comfortable reopening and so, closing in June was really to give everyone some closure on: this is what we’re doing; this is what the summer looks like. So families knew we weren’t going to open this summer, staff knew they were going to be off for the summer. Then we, the administrative team could focus on putting everything in place to reopen safely at the end of summer. So that’s what we focused on over the summer, hopefully staff got some downtime, a good break before having to come back to the craziness of being in child care during the pandemic which was a whole different kettle of fish. So, that closure I think was fine; everyone managed the closure, and reopening was kind of exciting. We were all very apprehensive about the reopening as well, we reopened on August 31st, 2020- I’ll never forget it and we didn’t really know what to expect. We had public health come through and let us know everything that we needed to be doing, we had a pandemic protocol in place, so that was one of the things I worked on over the summer was the pandemic protocol, and it changed everything about how we operated. It changed the things that are important to us in child care which is that interpersonal connection. Just even wearing masks took some time getting used to for us and we also had to have the eye protection, as well as the masks – I think we mostly went with goggles. We did have face shields, but most of our staff selected the goggles. They were definitely better, especially if you had glasses. And then there was isolating sick children, dealing with symptoms, not letting parents come in so parents had to drop off at the front door and then we had students working as runners, and they would run the children from the front door to their classroom and then at the end of the day parents would come to the front door give their names, someone would go get their child and bring them to the front. They couldn’t see the work, so we tried to accommodate that by doing a.lot online. So we already have a communication app that we use. That’s how we uploaded daily documentation and children’s artwork and things like that - we still use that. It was really the fact that parents, some of them who had never been here before the pandemic, so this is their child’s first experience with childcare, first experience away from mom and dad and they had to be left with the person in a mask and a gown and taken very clinically to the classroom. So there was some interesting learning as part of this. As much as we were very apprehensive about this, and wondered what that would look like, we actually discovered that children transitioned to child care more smoothly by doing that quick goodbye to mom at the front door So they actually had a smoother, more successful transition into child care, by having that transition be a bit more black, and white; you know parents can linger, parents' apprehension can sometimes come off on the child; it actually alleviated some of that which was very interesting. So, there were some positives and negatives? We, the educators and myself, and the admin team, kind of lost that interpersonal connection with the families. I think that the children managed quite well surprisingly, they seemed to transition in and out and it didn’t seem to phase them nearly as much as we thought, and it turned out to be positive in a way, So, what was challenging was after children started coming and we started getting into the groove of sending children home every time they had a runny nose and in those early days every runny nose was considered a serious occurrence. That was an unmanageable situation, so I worked probably 12-15 hours a day doing nothing but reporting runny noses because at first you didn’t just report them to the ministry, you reported them to the public health. You reported everything, there was follow up with public health over the child’s runny nose and then I also had to report it to the ministry of education as a serious occurrence. Currently, the only things that constitute a serious occurrence are like a child’s death, center closures, like if a water main breaks that shuts down the center, or if a child is missing. So those are serious occurrences and now we went to every runny nose is a serious occurrence. Parents became very frustrated with that situation because every time a child had a runny nose, we had to isolate the child in which of course we did in a nice way, we had separate rooms set aside for children that needed to be isolated for their symptoms and an educator who would stay with them, and a parent had to leave work or stop what they were doing if they were working from home, come get the child, and their day would be disrupted. So then they would be very angry with us. So that dynamic of the constant over- the-top kind of symptom monitoring, and sending children home, and just the fact that we didn’t have the interpersonal relationship with families to begin with, made it a very contentious. So for a year-and-a-half I would say, to two years it was using our communication app, parents became a little bit more critical and aggressive in how they spoke to us - a kind of a keyboard warrior took over- because everything was through an app, and so it became more like a comment section than an like an exchange with your child’s educator. So, that whole period where we were reporting symptoms- the runny noses- as a serious occurrence and even after that, ‘cause we still are very careful of the symptoms, we still have to send children home, we still have to ask if they have two negative COVID tests before they return. So there’s still that, but it is generally eased a little bit. But that period was very hard on our relationships with families. Parents were home-schooling their older children, which takes a lot more work than just sending them to school every day - it was very hard on families; very hard on our relationship with families. But we seem to be through the worst of that. We let parents back in the centre in May of 2022 - we didn’t have parents in until then. Once they came back, then we started to like alleviate some other requirements - we actually got rid of masks as a requirement, although most of our staff continued to wear masks, it ended up only being for a few weeks and then this awful flu season, RSV and COVID hit us, and we had very sick children. Then we had re-implemented masks right away when that happened. So we were only without masks for a few weeks as a requirement and now we require all adults to wear masks again. Children are too at-risk. It’s a bit of a catch 22- because part of why these children, especially those who have had COVID, are a little bit sicker is because everything has been so sterile so they’re not getting exposed to as much. So, their immune systems are weakened. It’s a bit of a catch-22. We’re wearing masks and we’re doing all this disinfecting, and that’s part of what’s making children so vulnerable, and yet at the same time we still want to protect them. It's a challenge, it’s definitely a bit of a challenge. We had children here in this past season hospitalized from RSV, and the flu, I don’t think we had any hospitalization with from COVID actually, but it seems like the children who had COVID when they were little, are more susceptible to RSV and the flu, so they’re actually having far worse outcomes from those other illnesses that would normally not be much of anything. So, we’ve had enough hospitalizations that it’s scary for us and we just want to protect the children.
How did the initial shut down affect you? What were the issues that needed to get sorted out at the very beginning and how did your job change?
So, I probably answered quite a bit of that but for me personally, how I was most impacted was when I had about 12-15 hours a day doing nothing but reporting runny noses, to the Ministry and to public health. It was so absurd, and I hope that people look back and they will see that, that was not effective - it didn’t help anything. It didn’t help anyone. It didn’t prevent COVID, so, I really hope that in the future there is a more measured response in that way. Because when, it was several months that I was reporting runny noses and I’m a director, like I’m supposed to be like charting a course for the center, and, and being a leader, and leading pedagogical approaches and, and new explorations, and instead I was reporting runny noses 12-15 hours a day, every day and working through the weekend, and that was so taxing. I think it was around November, I was walking home, and I got a message with a link to a CBC article, and it said “runny noses, are no longer a serious occurrence.” I almost get emotional to even thinking about that because I broke down. I was walking home, I just fell apart I just started bawling my eyes out. To hear, to see in print that runny noses were no longer a serious occurrence and then it was like, “I don’t know what my job is anymore”. That is all I’ve done since we reopened, I can’t even remember what my job was before. - all I did was report runny noses, so that was hard. I never thought in this stage in my career, that that is what I would be doing for my entire job was reporting runny noses. When that came to end, that was very emotional for me, a happy time, but it was also a “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing anymore.” So, it was a stressful time, being open, in childcare during the pandemic. From February 2020 to February 2021, Canada lost 21% of its ECE workforce, left the field. That’s higher than any other workforce During those initial days, people were like ‘I am not working in ECE in these conditions’ but sometimes it was because people had ethical issues with the idea that wearing a mask and being sterile and not cuddling as much - but we still cuddle children - there was that sense that you can’t be that educator that you set out to be, you can’t be as warm. So, people left for that, people left for their own health, for their own mental wellbeing, because it was such a stressful environment for so long and it was already such a stressful environment to work in childcare in most settings. I would say we’re pretty good here in the lab school, but in most community settings, they’re stressful environments. So yeah, we lost a lot of ECE’s from the work force, and that is why. The changes to our roles were very taxing for the educators and directors in our field. We’re fortunate our educator team is large enough with long term staff who’ve been here for many years, so we didn’t actually lose anyone during the pandemic, but, it’s been very hard to recruit supply staff. So that’s where we’re affected, is finding supply staff. We all really need supply staff, because we still have to exclude people if they have any symptoms and that includes our educators. So if our educators have symptoms, you know a few years ago we would’ve taken two Advil cold and sinus and we would’ve gone to work, and now they have to be off to make sure that they’re not contagious, you know that it’s not COVID or something more serious. So they have to take a couple of days to be off and all of that time, that exclusion, that isolation time that people are taking is making it really hard on staffing, and then you can’t find supply staff.
How did that change your work? What new measures were put to keep people safe? What was the process in making these decisions?
So the CCLC, the Child Care and Learning Centre, is actually a department of Student Affairs. So some of those decisions would be made with the Student Affairs directors' team, which I’m on. In terms of students coming back to campus, we were so excited to see students back. I walk to work, and I would walk through an empty campus every day because we came back in August of 2020, no one else came back for a over a year. So that whole year we were open, and the campus was closed - that was strange. Because we're the CCLC, we try to take the children out to see, sometimes to visit parents who work on campus, we hand out good luck cards to students during exams. There’s a lot of things we do to be part of a community so having an empty campus was pretty heart breaking for us. It was very strange, because I would arrive very early and leave very late especially in those early days. It was very eerie to walk through an empty campus every day. So students coming back to campus was very welcome to us. For a long time, we tried to keep our distance - we did still hand out cards, but we didn’t have children handing them out directly to students - we had a basket of cards and then if the children stood back a little bit, students could go take the card out of the basket. So we had to kind of adapt some of the community related activities that we took part in. When students came back to the CCLC, we had co-op students as soon as we opened in September of 2020, but practicum was online for that year. And then I think it was the following year that practicum came back to the CCLC, and that’s been wonderful. So, it’s hard to, for such a human service field, to properly provide the instruction and the experiential learning even in an online environment. We really welcomed the students coming back and I think they were happy to be back.
How did you personally feel about returning to work? Did that change once you were actually at work?
So, back to summer 2020, we were all apprehensive about returning to work because of the nature of our work. We felt very strongly that we were going to provide children with physical contact. I think we were most worried that we would be told - there were schools (not here) but there were schools that had children required to stay two meters apart. We would never ever do that in early learning and I know some centers tried, but we were really, diametrically opposed to some of those things - that we felt like the risk outweighed the benefits of doing it. We felt like children’s social and emotional needs had to come first at this developmental stage. So I think we were all very apprehensive because we didn’t know what it would look like. We heard horror stories from Quebec about boxes being drawn on floor and children told to stay in these boxes that they had to be 2 meters apart. So we had kind of worst case scenarios ideas in our heads and I think we were all very apprehensive. We’re very passionate about children’s social and emotional wellbeing. We were apprehensive less about our own physical health and more about children’s social, emotional being; that’s what we were scared about - and that’s what I was scared about. Would we be able to provide what children needed for their social, emotional needs, under these restrictions? So, we of course needed to follow the requirements, but we wanted to do it in a way that met children's needs. So, that's what I was most worried about. I think that’s what a lot of people were apprehensive about. We had a few staff that might have been a little apprehensive about their physical wellbeing. You know, that they were afraid of COVID, right? And it was a long time before we had a case of COVID in the centre. We probably went over a year; we were so pleased at how we kept it at bay and then, in the winter 2022, January of 2022, it just hit us like nothing I’ve ever seen and I remember, it was months before I could even say out loud that we had a case of COVID because it just became so emotional that we had COVID in our centre; it just made me so sad that anyone might have gotten COVID here (at the CCLC). You know, we did our best, we did it for a long time, it got so rampant in the community, and people were getting it and getting it twice. It was January 2022 before we really had cases of COVID here and then it just infected everyone. We screened children upon entry - so children had to be screened when their parents would drop them off at their front door. During COVID, we screened them by taking their temperature and making sure they filled out the electronic screening form, and that everything checked out and that they were able to be there; and we did a wellness check, like a visual wellness check, and then if there were symptoms through the day, we would call the parents from home or if their temperature was elevated or if we noticed if they said yes to something on the screening form then we would have to exclude them . It was very strange to walk around and never see anybody but ourselves because we’re such a busy centre with like students and people doing research and parents. So for about two years, were closed to parents and any visitors and it was strange. It was just quieter, it was weird. It was still a positive place but yeah, it was strange.
What were the most challenging aspects of the pandemic for you?
It would’ve been those early days of the over reporting, the ridiculous amount of reporting that wasn’t sustainable, that was very hard I think on anyone who was doing it. Then beyond that it was the relationships with family and how contentious it became because we were constantly having to send children home. So it was those two things where the worst part of it.
Were there any aspects of pandemic life that were good for you?
The other hardest part I think that I should mention, was, shutting down the centre. When we stopped on-line programming; it wasn’t really a layoff, that was June 2020; but making the decision to lay people off was devastating for me. So that was hard as well. But in terms of the positives for it, I would say you can’t work in childcare from home, but during that period of March-August 2020 we had to work from home, whether it was for on-line programming or preparing to reopen in August, like the administrative aspect of it; that change of pace (even though I was probably still working 16-hour days) I was doing it in the comfort of my home. I did it with my family around me, and I realized how fortunate I am because I had a comfortable home, I had a happy family, right? So, for me personally that was positive, because I had the change of pace was really nice. I started working at 6:00 am and then worked for two/ three hours then I stopped and walked the dogs and then had breakfast. So we’d have breakfast, walk the dogs, and then come back to work for a few more hours, and then, you know, stop and make lunch for the whole family; we’d all eat together and then I go back to work and stop and make dinner; and we had this rhythm that was really comfortable and not hurried. So the change of pace was very healthy for a lot of people, certainly for me; but again, I recognized that I was privileged to be, you know in a comfortable home and with a happy family and I imagine, you know domestic violence increased during that period. I recognized that I was fortunate that way, but that was a positive thing for me. My teenage daughter was having a ball she was in grade nine, and you know it was really emotionally hard to stop going to school, but once she got settled and she got into that rhythm, I remember her saying: “the pandemic has been really good for me” - because we have a nice life, we had a nice time. Because sometimes in the nice weather I worked in my backyard, like the entire day - like when else can you do that? That was very nice for my family. It was good for us as a family, because for a teenage girl, I was worried about that. It went really well, so that was positive, what else was positive? No, that’s all that was positive; I think that’s about it. I quite loved that period. It was not a bad time. I will say what was very interesting to me is that, I remember in April 2020 thinking, “I can’t believe it is this much work to be closed”. I probably never worked so hard in this one job as I did when we were closed, which people found really weird - we’re closed, like how can it be any work? It is so much work to be closed - like there is so much critical high-stakes communication, right? So, high-stakes communication with families, high-stakes communication with my team/ my staff, high-stakes communication with upper levels within the university to explain what we’re going through and what we need - like letting people above me know what we needed. So it was just constant work. That was a lot, but the pace of it was better. So, I will say that I never knew it would be so much work to be closed!
How did COVID-19 impact your friends and your family?
Friends and family - I think we reached out to each other more, checked on each other more. I was probably more in touch with friends during that first year of the pandemic in 2020, than I would’ve normally been. So, I think it didn’t have a negative effect. I know for my son, my oldest son he is very extroverted and social - the pandemic was very hard for him. I love being home with my family, dogs. I don’t socialize a lot - I’m busy with work and school and stuff like that so, I didn’t miss anything that way. But Devon, who is very outgoing, very active socially, has a huge friend group, that is really tight knit - he struggled. It was very hard for him, and I worried about him. So he’s probably the only one that I really worried about, mentally and emotionally and I never would’ve normally worried about him - but during that first year and a half I worried about him mentally and emotionally.
Looking back, how did the pandemic change you?
How did the pandemic change my life? Well, I’m sad that, that it came to this, I’m sad that humanity and humans don’t do what is needed to stop killing the environment, to stop the spread of pandemics, and there’s a lot that could be done to prevent this in the future, and we’re not doing it, so it made me a little bit more nihilist, I guess, because we’re still not doing it, we’re still not doing what’s needed, you know? It’s devastating to know we have the answers, we know what needs to be done and we’re not doing anything. It made me a bit more nihilist, unfortunately.
Did the pandemic change your relationship with your job?
I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t have a changed relationship with their job, but I’m trying to think of how it changed my relationship with my job. I didn’t seek to leave my job, the way a lot of people in the Early Childhood Education profession did, because I have a leadership position at a university, it’s one of the better jobs that’s in our field. I probably have one of the best jobs in Early Childhood Education in the province so, I’m very fortunate. So I didn’t seek to like get out of my job because I felt like a lot of people needed me. So I guess in that way it made me, feel really responsible for not just what I was already responsible for, which was my team, and student learning and children, but I suddenly became responsible now for their health and their well being, in a way that I haven’t been before. I think it changed my job in that way. I think that might be for anyone who was in a management position. We had more of a responsibility to people, and certainly when I was in the early days trying to keep people working, I didn’t want people to not have their jobs, right? So, it changed my job in that way, like the intense pressure and the responsibility for other peoples’ well being, which I already had in this role, but it was heightened to a probably unhealthy level. So it changed my job that way. Because now, you are suddenly responsible for people’s health and their parents’ health, and then their grandparents’ health: we’re sending children home and if they have COVID and they give it to grandma - it was an immense pressure and weight to carry and it’s why we work so hard and kept COVID out for so long. It was just so much responsibility. It changed my job, it changed my relationship with my job. Our admin team already had an arrangement before COVID, because it can be hard to get work done when you’re here in the centre, so for years, we already had an arrangement where one of us takes one day to work from home every week. So, if something can’t happen in person, we move more quickly now to doing things online. Just because something can’t happen in person, no longer means it has to be canceled. So that’s changed, so now we can move things online very easily. It’s very nice, it can be really good. So that’s been kind of good and probably good for productivity as well. We could reach people that we weren’t able to reach before, you know when we thought about having professional learning events we thought, oh but it’s all the way in B.C. We can do it virtually now, so it’s opened a lot of doors. For myself, as an educator, I can also deliver learning online.
Is there anything that you missed before everything? About knowing how your job was?
The pandemic hurt everyone, including universities financially. So there’s a different relationship with money right now. We have a lot of plans that had to be put on hold, and a lot of those plans were exciting. Those were the things that we were going to do; and we’re going to expand this program; or we’re going to build this nature centre; and we’re going to do those things. We had a lot of plans that way, and, but look what’s happened with the economy. The pandemic is not responsible for the economic situation but it has certainly contributed to these problems. Pre-pandemic, we just had a different relationship with money and we were a little bit more optimistic about the future for our centre, for early learning, for society - I think we were a little bit more optimistic.
Now before I turn it on pause is there anything else you’d like to mention about?
To your last question I also meant our relationships with families was different before the pandemic. I think that we’re starting to get that back now that parents are back in the building, but we still haven’t branched out to have any big events. We have had one in September and it went well. I unfortunately couldn’t go; I had COVID for the first time. So, I miss all the events we used to have with families.