Editor's note: This is the second article of a multi-part series examining the impact of COVID-19 on the lives of Fort Lee community members and organizations.
FORT LEE, Va. (May 21, 2020) -- Of all the difficult decisions that had to be made to protect the community from COVID-19, closing Child Development Centers and Family Child Care homes was, arguably, the most contentious.
They were abruptly shuttered seven weeks ago in the interest of maintaining health and safety among the youngest members of the community. It was the most reasonable course of action for administrators, parents and health officials seeking to keep children from contracting the disease. The response, however, was not a simple equation for FCC home operator Ewa Yartey.
The Army spouse – one of few certified to care for children at an installation residence here – has accepted the consequences of the coronavirus and the need for restrictions. Still, shutting down her daycare has been an earth-shattering experience, steadily ripping away at the family fabric she has woven over the past four years.
“I literally feel incomplete,” said Yartey, her Polish accent evident while sitting in view of a backyard full of toys and no children. “Even the house … it feels sad. I was going through my pictures (of children) a short while ago, and I just cried. It’s different.”
Communities all over the world have adjusted to a new normal of teleworking and teleconferencing, or not working at all due to the pandemic. At Fort Lee, while childcare facilities have closed, other protective policies have allowed military members to work from home while simultaneously caring for their children. At some point, safeguards will be eased and facilities will re-open, albeit with new safety policies and procedures.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Yartey household was a bustling daycare closely resembling the type of loving environment that families share. The energetic blonde caregiver freely distributed hugs and pecking kisses while feeding, consoling and teaching children for 12 hours a day, five days a week in a residence that, by appearance, made no pretentions about its purpose. Yartey and her husband Andrew, an Army staff sergeant, have no children of their own, and he said his wife “lives and breathes” the kids in her care.
“Her dedication (to the children) goes way beyond doing a job … (there is) lots of love,” he said.
That kind of affection stemmed from a desire to support the military community only to burgeon into an adoration for children and seeing them grow and develop. Yartey went further in explaining the relationships with the six toddlers formerly in her care and the impact the closure has had on her personally.
“They’re my family,” she said. “I miss them like they’re my kids.”
She was already agonizing over the thought of discussing the disease with them. What words would make a pandemic-category virus responsible for sickness and death less scary to her tiny charges? Then, news arrives of the pending shutdown, and she would have to shape that information to make it less incomprehensible to the tots.
“One of the parents tried to explain to her daughter that something was going on; that they had to close the daycare and they’d have to stay home for a while,” Yartey recalled. “She became mad. She told her mom the people are ‘mean’ and wanted to know why she couldn’t come back to Mrs. Ewa’s house.”
The children’s understanding of the daycare’s closure became less comprehensible over time. Yartey said one girl packed her things nightly thinking the next day would bring her back to the childcare provider’s residence. To satisfy the child’s longing for “Mrs. Ewa,” the girl’s mom – like the other parents – resorted to regular “drive-bys” during which they would wave from vehicles to an elated Yartey standing in her driveway.
Yartey also offered reassurances of her continued love through Facetime and telephone calls. While technology is a clear means for closing the divide, it is not parallel with having children in her midst. She worries the hiatus has left the children in various stages of regression because so much time has passed since they were in her care. She knows they ask about friends, playtime and the elaborate birthday parties she is known for hosting.
In the past, permanent change of station moves were the only times Yartey understood she would be without children. Being without them now, and surrounded by all they love – books, big wheels, dolls and action figures – is for her a daily crushing blow.
“I never thought something like this would happen,” she said of the health crisis and resulting isolation. “And it’s not just us; it’s like this for everybody trying to adjust.”
Yartey is feeling her way through the darkness without the youngsters. She has plenty of time on her hands and has spent it – as one would guess – making plans for the children’s return. Ordering educational and other supplies online, polishing up lesson plans, keeping up with FCC training, taking online college courses and redesigning her classroom are a few of the things occupying her time.
Although making preparations for re-opening fills the blank spaces for Yartey, a return to normal childcare operations here is clouded in uncertainty. When will the children come back and under what conditions? Will there be screening measures? Would the naturally affectionate Yartey be required to refrain from hugging, smooching and reassuring those in her care?
Tamara D. Johnson, Child and Youth Services coordinator, said a date for re-opening childcare facilities here has not been established, but there are certain to be changes pertaining to social distancing, health and sanitation.
“Once a date has been established, we will ensure all our staff and patrons are informed and educated accordingly about the format and procedures we will have in place,” she wrote in an email response to the Traveller. “In terms of conditions, we will abide by any regulatory guidance applicable to health and safety.”
In the meantime, Yartey said she is trying to maintain a level of positivity. Like many others, however, she believes re-opening will be uncharted territory and what was familiar will be a relic of the past.
“We want our lives back, but on the other side, we understand it is not possible,” she said. “How are we going to come back to normal life? When is it going to happen? … Whenever it is, and after all that has happened, I don’t believe it will ever be the same.”