Nebraska Reopens…Along with Early Care and Education Programs: Chantel Tonkinson Shares Her New Beginning

As Nebraska gradually reopens, so will Ladybug Crossing! Throughout the pandemic,  our early care and education providers and programs have been strategizing, struggling, and helping – even amid this potentially fatal illness. We are glad to hear and share their stories. It is undeniable that early care and education has been duly impacted by COVID-19. It is, however, equally undeniable that this demographic has proven itself to be hard-working, resilient, and resourceful.

Positive change, even in the face of crisis, occurs through community engagement; some we see, some we can’t. What we can see, from our childcare providers’ stories, is the day we return to an eventual, inevitable, and thriving state.

As we spoke with Chantel Tonkinson, the director of Ladybug Crossing Early Learning Program in North Platte, Nebraska, our vision of a brighter future sharpened into focus.*

Children at Chantel Tonkinson's early care center, Ladybug Crossing, create Easter projects before Chantel temporarily closed the facility for her big move and a new beginning.
Children at Chantel Tonkinson’s early care center, Ladybug Crossing, create Easter projects before Chantel temporarily closed the facility for her big move and a new beginning.

In response to these rapidly changing times, Chantel and her colleagues have created several resources to support not only themselves but their greater community.

“We ha[d] nine [North Platte] childcare centers—six are now closed,” said Chantel. She is among those early care providers and educators who made the decision to temporarily close in response to the pandemic. Chantel said that she came to this conclusion recently.

“[We] providers closed out of concerns for staff, our kids, and families,” she said. Chantel said that before closing, she and the other area providers and programs had already seen a 75-85% reduction in enrollment.

Her staff’s comfort levels were among Chantel’s deciding factors. “I was a big champion to stay open, but as we saw the [virus] numbers increase, we became increasingly concerned. Finally, last week, two teachers said, ‘We’d feel better to be at home for two weeks.’”

Chantel adds content to Ladybug Crossing's Facebook page to engage parents and children even after her childcare center has closed.
Chantel adds content to Ladybug Crossing’s Facebook page to engage parents and children even after her childcare center has closed.

Chantel said that she would feel terrible if someone – child or staff member—in her care were to get sick. She said that her staff’s emotional well-being is as important to her as their physical health.

“We were down to six staff members running 37 kids,” she said. “I had already cut back my hours of operation because my staff was working 13-hour days. I didn’t need to burn them out.”

In April, Ladybug Crossing had temporarily closed and is currently open again, as Chantel and her employees continue to adjust. 

Chantel said that this goodbye to her staff and facility wasn’t for long: she has called them back to move and reopen their new home: Osgood Elementary.

This plan has been in the works for the past few months. Chantel will re-opened her facility on May 11 in a revamped area of the school. Aside from her and her staff moving their program, Chantel and her colleagues have been busy making other moves.

Since the outbreak and reopening, she and other North Platte early care and education directors have put together a Facebook Messenger group to share information with each other.

“The directors’ group is great. We’ve gotten rid of that past, competitive nature we’ve seen in North Platte,” said Chantel. One of the group’s helpful deeds included placing the children of essential workers into new care once their center had closed.

DirectorGroup-1
The North Platte directors’ group uses Facebook Messenger to update one another on news, including their current number of children in attendance. 

In turn, Chantel said that the group was a good resource for her when she momentarily halted her business in preparation for her move.

“I shared when I was [temporarily] closing,” said Chantel, “I used [the Facebook Messenger group] as a form of outreach.” She said that other directors assisted her to place her own children in new care after she stopped operating her facility. The group tackled other subjects such as explaining and providing updates about the Small Business Loans stimulus package.

Other early childhood programs with whom Chantel is affiliated continue to create more positive engagement. One is Rooted in Relationships, an initiative that focuses on children’s social-emotional well-being.

Chantel said Lincoln and Keith Counties’ Rooted in Relationships teams hold regular Zoom calls, which have also played a helpful role for providers.

“It’s about being around others and understanding what we’re going through,” she said.

Chantel said that during these calls, Rooted coaches, who are certified teachers and early childhood experts, have been a great resource in facilitating and hosting guest speakers who can help providers with areas of struggle.

Some of the guests that have spoken at the Rooted Zoom meetings include Keith County’s Economic Development Officer, who explained and discussed Small Business Association (SBA) loans and LB840, a bill which, according to the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, “…authorizes incorporated cities and villages to appropriate and spend local sales and property tax revenues for…economic development purposes.” Prior to that meeting, the Rooted group hosted a CPA to further explain and discuss SBA loans.

Beyond helping each other, Chantel and other early care providers and educators are devising creative ways to help their community.

Chantel said that she and the North Platte Communities for Kids team had a small sum of remaining funds for which they gave a creative purpose. “There weren’t enough [funds] left to provide significant [early care] support,” Chantel said. So, she and her team decided to try something else.

Chantel said they decided to put the remaining funds toward a local coffee shop, The Coffee Bin. After donating remaining monies to the business, Chantel and her team created postcard coupons (below) so that all early care and education providers could get a free drink.

Postcarddiscount

Chantel said that customers and the business will observe social-distancing best practices and conduct transactions through the establishment’s drive-through.

Meanwhile, there continue to be other acts of community kindness, large and small, for providers at large.

Chantel named North Platte Public Schools as a supporter for her as well. She contacted the school’s Superintendent, Dr. Ron Hanson, and requested to change her move-in date to her new location at Osgood Elementary to an earlier one in May, to which he and the school system agreed.

“The school district has been a great support,” she said.

Meanwhile, forms of positive change continue to glint through the fog of uncertainty: Chantel said one community member has randomly sent flowers to early care and education providers as a reminder to stay strong, healthy, and hopeful.

Chantel continues to foster new beginnings...even though her center is closed, she engages with her families through virtual activities.
Chantel continues to foster new beginnings…before her center reopened, she engaged with her families through virtual activities.

Each story is different, yet there are parts that remain the same: Chantel and her cohort demonstrate a willingness to help and a strong work ethic.

When asked what other forms of support she needed, Chantel said, “It changes from week to week.” She said certain essentials were among those things that would help, “There’s the issue of cleaning supplies,” she said, regarding her difficulty in obtaining them.

The challenges for early childhood professionals are obvious, but so is goodwill: A free cup of coffee for a provider that supports an independent business. Rooted coaches and providers form virtual groups to meet support one another. Economic Development professionals explain policies via Zoom. Directors help each other place the children of essential workers in new care. Public schools are supportive of their partnerships with early childhood learning centers like Chantel’s. Sanitizing supplies are lent. Flowers are sent.

New beginnings on the horizon: Chantel still communicates with her families to show them the progress of the caterpillars, their chrysalis, and their upcoming transformation...along with her own.
New beginnings on the horizon: Before she re-opened, Chantel communicated with her families to show them the progress of the caterpillars, their chrysalis, and their upcoming transformation…along with her own.

Slowly, through small community acts of kindness, we are moving toward a brighter, if not uncertain, future for our community and early care and education providers.

Ladybug Crossing reopens May 11. New beginnings and re-openings are happening, and the butterflies are emerging!
Ladybug Crossing reopens May 11. New beginnings and re-openings are happening, and the butterflies are emerging!

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*This interview was originally conducted in mid-April when Ladybug Crossing was temporarily closed to prepare for their move. Chantel and her staff are excited to announce their program will re-open on May 11!

Nebraska Children and Families Foundation supports children, young adults and families at risk with the overall goal of giving our state's most vulnerable kids what they need to reach their full potential. We do this by building strong communities that support families so their children can grow up to be thriving, productive adults.

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Posted in Early Childhood, News and Events

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