When Michelle Smith Lank, owner and director of Kids World Learning Center on Savannah Avenue, decided to remain open during the pandemic, she did so with careful consideration of the families she serves, as well as her large staff.
“Many of my families are essential workers with no family nearby and they had to go to work,” said Lank. “Many are single parents with no support. We here at Kids World are our families’ support.As for my staff, for many of my workers, I am the only income source.”
A member of International Child Care Providers, Lank said she’d been watching the COVID incident closely since Italy’s numbers began to climb and realized quickly that the initial closure request of two weeks that many were forecasting would become more far-reaching than that timeframe.
Initially, the center followed the rule of 10 individuals in a classroom, including the teachers. Lank said they had no trouble following the rule because many families were keeping the kids home at that time. Later, as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp increased the numbers per classroom and more parents were called back to work, it took about a week of scrambling, according to Lank, but they soon fell into a routine as the numbers per classroom shifted to 15, then 25.
“We’ve followed the CDC guidelines,” said Lank. “In the beginning, those guidelines sometimes changed hourly. It’s a changed normalcy. We navigate every single day through familiar and the unfamiliar.”
With the nature of a daycare operation, the center was already practicing good handwashing techniques, but the COVID virus has increased that practice.
“Before and after we eat, following bathroom time, when entering the classroom. And then, at the top of the hour, another handwashing,” she said.
Lank said rather than use a familiar song while washing hands, teachers help the children count to 20 in rhythmic fashion.
“We like the math skills added,” said Lank.
Other regular practices include checking temperatures before anyone enters the building, and only the child enters the building after receiving hand sanitizer. Immediately upon entering the classroom, each child washes their hands.
Children over 3 years of age wear masks throughout the day at the center.
“One of our 3-year-old teachers came up with this to remind the kids, ‘Nose and chin must be in,’ ” she said.
Teachers and staff wear masks, too.
“We were wearing masks before it was cool to wear a mask,” Lank said. “The CDC recommends it, so we’re doing it. If we ever get COVID, and we didn’t wear a mask, then I wouldn’t say we had done our best.”
Another change from before COVID means that teachers can no longer float between classes, but stay in one classroom for the entirety of the day.
“We have the advantage of four buildings,” said Lank. “If someone were to get sick, we’d only have to shut down one building, not the entire program.”
Door knobs, light switches, tables and toilets get wiped down with more intentionality and frequency, too.
“We were very open and transparent with our communication to parents,” said Lank. “In the beginning, I’d have Plan A, B, C and D at times.”
Even before the virus shut down much of the country, Lank had begun using a biodefense system, called Synexis, in the baby and toddler rooms that runs through the air-vac system.
“It helps cut down on bacteria, and obviously the babies can’t wear masks,” said Lank. “You can kinda feel the cleanness in the air while it’s silently working. My goal from the beginning was to make sure Kids World was safe from a health standpoint and to have the same, or higher quality, program we’ve always had.”
Lank said Kids World continues to enroll new children and are almost at capacity, with some parents continuing to pay to hold their child’s spot.
“I have amazing parents,” said Lank. “They are major supporters of Kids World. Many of my parents were feeding the staff during the early weeks of the pandemic and providing gift cards.”
Lank also said that shall of her long-term staff members are still working, and she only lost one part-time Georgia Southern student after the dorms closed and one worker resigned to stay home during the crisis.
”I’ve continued to pay our teachers 100 percent, even if they were teaching 50 percent,” she said.
Lank said she believes the virus has made the whole world recognize just how important childcare is.
Kids World is open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and has an on-site chef, administrative team, four playgrounds and a staff that ranges from 25 to 30 members. Kids World is a year-round program for children ages 6 weeks through age 12 for after school programs. Three Georgia pre-K classes are on site, and in the fall, for the first time, Kids World will offer kindergarten.
Lank, who is completing her 15th year as owner and director of Kids World, credits classes of low numbers and strict cleaning procedures for their successful trekking through the pandemic.