Photo courtesy Fort Bliss
Ann Ogle distinctly remembers standing in a parking lot in mid-March 2020, discussing with Fort Bliss leaders how to protect children enrolled in Fort Bliss child care facilities from the novel coronavirus.
Ogle is the child administrator for Fort Bliss Child and Youth Services. She said Fort Bliss CYS has more than 10,000 registered military-connected children. Now, with cases of a highly-communicable disease on the rise in the United States, the installation leadership had to determine how, and if, those services could continue.
“We talked through plans and policies, and we instituted them immediately,” Ogle said. “Masks were a big change and we started wearing them day one.”
Caregivers and children age 3 and older are required to wear masks in all Fort Bliss CYS facilities. In addition to face coverings, other COVID-19 mitigation processes in place include: strict sanitation guidelines, Plexiglas dividers, a no-visitor policy, and cohorts.
“Every classroom is a cohort and there are no more than 10 people in a classroom – not 10 children – 10 people, which includes the providers,” said Ogle. “So, in an infant room, you have eight infants and two providers; the same with the toddler room. In a preschool room, nine preschoolers and one provider.”
Ratios are approximately 25 percent of normal operating capacity, which is possible because currently CYS only provides full-time child care for personnel identified as mission essential. Part-time and hourly care are no longer an option, in order to limit exposure.
Also on pause are CYS classes, clubs and sports, as well as activities for middle and high school students. Fort Bliss is only providing full-time care for school-age children age 12 and below.
Ogle said, “Families are vetted through Parent Central Services. We check the division mission essential list and then we check to see if they qualify for full-time care – dual military, working spouse, full-time student. We’re meeting the mission. We just aren’t providing the extraneous things that we did pre-COVID, but we have every intention of returning to that once it’s safe.”
Like the CDCs, Fort Bliss School Age Centers are now operating in cohorts. Each classroom is a cohort with the same ratio, nine students and one provider.
Prior to COVID-19, the children could choose to spend time in one of the facility’s many activity rooms, such as the game room, the performing arts room, the art room, the computer lab, etc. They could float to a new room whenever a space opened up; now they move in cohorts.
One room is always empty, which allows the cohorts to shift from one room to another with sanitation between rotations.
“The rotation allows the children the opportunity to use all of the areas of the SAC,” Ogle said. “It’s been very successful, because when we have an exposure, we only have to quarantine that cohort, instead of shutting down a center.”
All of the caregivers have adapted to their new normal. The new cohort policy means each classroom has three to four providers who must
communicate and coordinate among themselves when it comes to breaks and time off. They can no longer depend on substitutes or combining classrooms.
“Our providers are incredible,” Ogle said. “We have a plan and it works – there is no more going back-and-forth between rooms or programs – things we used to do to make it work aren’t allowed now.”
Employees have separate entrances, exits, and break rooms, and everything is based on the classroom cohorts. The break rooms have separate tables, everyone eats six feet apart, and they are sanitized in between users. Ogle thinks the reason the staff adapted so quickly and easily is because they were trained and ready.
“We drill mobilization all the time, so when we implemented our emergency response, [the staff] knew how to react,” she said. “When we pulled the trigger, they responded, they reacted and they knew what to do.”
However, with school starting up again, the School Age Centers will once again have to react to a new normal.
Milam SAC Director Laura Villalobos said the School Age Centers are currently servicing children in several different school districts and charter schools, but they can only sustain doing so with students attending virtually.
She said, “While everyone is 100 percent virtual, we can support different school districts, but when they have the option to go face-to-face, we only have the infrastructure to support what the five on-post schools offer as the combination.”
For example, if the El Paso Independent School District, which governs Fort Bliss schools, decides to continue with the proposed A day/B day schedule with three virtual days, that is what Fort Bliss SAC facilities will support. They will not be able to support students who are 100 percent virtual, or who attend another school district, because they do not have the capability to do so without mixing cohorts and risking exposure.
Both Ogle and Villalobos have spoken with families to ensure they are aware of the policies regarding attendance, as well as expectations and limitations of the SAC providers during the virtual school day.
Villalobos said, “We are there to get the students on their devices, to follow the schedule set by EPISD, and to provide redirection, if need be. However, if a child wants to take a break and color, my staff is directed to allow the child to have that time to themselves.”
Communication will play a large role during virtual school. The SAC providers will communicate with the parents so they can then communicate with the teacher to ensure academic success for the students.
“It’s a learning curve for all of us,” Ogle said. “It’s fluid on Fort Bliss; It’s fluid throughout the Army, and we’re doing everything we can, but we’re not teachers or certified instructors. We are there to encourage and direct, but the school and the parents are responsible for the actual success of the student.”
Fort Bliss SACs have always supported a homework lab. Villalobos said they basically took their homework lab model and expanded it to support the new virtual school setup.
“When I had to mobilize to keep the kids safe, I converted our game atrium to now house two cohorts of nine children with tables to support learning and break areas,” she said.
Other changes include a divided gym – half is a traditional gym to support P.E. and brain breaks, and half is a mobilized learning space; one cohort will be allowed on each side with sanitation between transitioning cohorts.
Health policies at all facilities are stricter now too, in that pre-COVID, if a child had a fever, they could not return to the CDC until they were fever-free for 24 hours. Now it’s 72 hours fever-free, without medicine. If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, they isolate for 10 days, then they must be medically-cleared by occupational health to return to work.
“We don’t make medical decisions. We do quarantine exclusions,” Ogle said. “Either we have a suspected exposure and we are quarantining everybody in the cohort, or we have a positive case and we know you were exposed. We are not the ones who deliver that message though. I’m on the phone with [Army Public Health Nursing] as soon as we have somebody hot, and once APHN verifies a positive exposure, they tell the families.”
Ogle said every case is different, which is why the health professionals and her division are in close contact. They judge a case based on the particular exposure, the circumstances, and the underlying health conditions of the people involved. She added that she could not be prouder of her team.
She said, “The people doing the hard work are here in those rooms – our caregivers, our custodial team, our maintenance team, our cooks – their dedication, care, and their ability to adapt and be flexible when everything changes multiple times a day is just phenomenal. They are prioritizing the health and safety of themselves, their coworkers, the children and the families. They take pride in the job that they do even more so now under these circumstances, because they realize how precious and valuable they are to the care they give every single day.”
It has been five months since Ogle met with Fort Bliss leaders in the parking lot to determine the way ahead during an unprecedented time. And although COVID-19 cases in El Paso have risen substantially since that March afternoon, Fort Bliss child care has not missed a day. It is scaled down with precautions in place, but it has continued, and Ogle wants parents to feel safe choosing CYS as their child care option.
“We have done everything in our power to mitigate the risk to the children and their families,” she said. “You’re probably at a greater risk running to the grocery store than coming here and staying with us all day. We’re safe, we’re heavily regulated and we care. You’ve got to go to work, so trust us and trust that we are going to follow the policies and procedures we have in place.”