Early Learning Center

Creating Landscapes Early Learning Center student Lucas Faustino digs into the sandbox in the school's new outdoor classroom behind Unitarian Universalist Church of Meadville on Wednesday.

Kneeling outside the fresh sand of a new sandbox, a pint-sized shovel in his hand, Lucas Faustino had a plan.

“I want to work,” he announced before literally digging in to the task at hand.

Excavation, however, was not Lucas’ only field of endeavor: also on the agenda were some bell ringing, some energetic running and a little swinging from conveniently placed tree limbs.

As one of five children enrolled in the Creating Landscapes Early Learning Center (ELC), much of Lucas’ work on Wednesday was located in the preschool’s recently opened outdoor classroom. Surrounded by a new picket fence, the grassy enclosure comes with a digging area, a chest full of activities and more — and it’s situated just outside the back door of Unitarian Universalist Church of Meadville, where the preschool itself is housed on the second floor of the parish house.

The outdoor classroom is one of the more noticeable examples of how the coronavirus pandemic has led preschools in the area to reshape everything from drop-off routines to classroom furnishings to where students go during the day. The goal is to keep children safe and, to the extent possible, allow kids to be kids.

“I think right now it's their favorite place to be,” ELC teacher Amanda Marcum said of the school’s outdoor classroom. “During our morning meeting each day, that’s one of the things we hear — ‘I want to be outside.’”

Their enthusiasm has meant that the small group of students has spent at least an hour each day in the “backyard,” as Educational Director Charlotte Reedy calls the space. Often they visit before and after lunch, she said.

But safety and fun aren’t the only goals that preschools like the Early Learning Center have in mind when they change their set-up or create something like an outdoor classroom. They are also hoping to attract more students.

Before school started earlier this month at the ELC, officials had already decided to limit the class of 3- to 5-year-olds to just 10 kids instead of the usual cap of 20, according to Reedy, and believed the smaller class size was economically sustainable for the year. So far, however, they have only five students.

The number of students is similarly down at larger preschools like Sonlight Child Learning Center in Cochranton, which cares for children ranging in age from infants to 12 years old. Prior to the pandemic, Sonlight typically had about 110 children split into seven classrooms, according to Director Tracy McCullough.

Over the summer enrollment dropped to about 55 students, McCullough said, much lower than the 80 the school would typically have. The beginning of the school year brought a significant jump, but even with 90 students, the school is still down nearly 20 percent from pre-pandemic enrollment.

“Many, many parents — a whole bunch — were so thrilled we were open because kids so desperately wanted to come back to school,” McCullough said on Wednesday from Cochranton Community Church, where Sonlight is located.

Like ELC, Sonlight has rearranged its classrooms significantly and spent as much time outside as was feasible over the summer. McCullough said that’s less practical with the increased numbers in the fall and the school’s determination to keep the various classroom cohorts separate from one another to decrease each student’s exposure.

Where the ELC is eager to increase its enrollment, McCullough said Sonlight wasn’t in a position to return to pre-pandemic levels.

“Right now, even if I had children wanting to enroll, I don’t have enough staff to open another classroom,” said McCullough, who has been pressed into service as an afterschool teacher due to the school’s staffing shortage.

Reedy said two ELC staff members had decided not to return in the fall because they were homeschooling children of their own due to the pandemic. The drop in student numbers was likely also because of the pandemic, she added. While some parents were concerned about increasing their children’s exposure in a group setting like preschool, others were working from home or not working at all.

Like many parents, preschools have been impacted economically by the pandemic as well. While some are seeing reduced numbers of students, nearly all preschools are seeing their costs increase due to coronavirus mitigation requirements.

“Childcare is very expensive, and it’s expensive to follow all of these (guidelines) and it’s gotten more expensive since the pandemic,” McCullough said.

The combination of increasing costs, declining student numbers and difficulty finding staff makes for a challenging outlook for preschools.

And trying to get the attention of an afterschool group of children spread throughout a gymnasium while muffled by a mask doesn’t make the situation any less frustrating, according to McCullough.

So it’s nice to get outside for a bit where the concern over distancing and possible transmission is less pressing.

Still, as anyone who has spent more than a few months in northwestern Pennsylvania likely already knows, it’s not the perfect solution, as Reedy acknowledged.

“We are going to be out here as long as we can,” she said. “We just hope the weather stays nice as long as possible.”

Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.

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