Marion Forsman-Boushie Early Learning Center balances caring for big and little kids

The Marion Forsman-Boushie Early Learning Center in Suquamish has had to make a lot of adjustments to continue to care for and educate children through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Their goals are to make sure kids, teachers and parents remain safe.

“I think we closed down the same day the governor issued his proclamation. We didn’t open our in-care center again until the end of June. July 6 was our first-day having kids back on site,” said Nigel Lawrence, director of the center.

The Suquamish Tribe was one of the first Native tribes to go along with Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandates during the initial statewide shutdown. The tribal government closed down its government buildings as well as the center.

The ELC serves from the smallest of babies to 11-year-old kids with infant care, child care, preschool, pre-kindergarten, and before and after school care for elementary students.

“We have thirteen classrooms here at the early learning center, and we usually have a teacher go into each classroom and give other teachers breaks. But now that would just be introducing another person’s germs; we didn’t want a carrier to be going from room to room spreading stuff,” Lawrence said.

Now each classroom has one teacher, and each class is treated like a pod that sticks together. Students enter the classroom through different doors rather than the main school door. The teachers wait outside to take students’ temperatures while parents are discouraged from entering the center.

“They’re either standing under a canopy or sometimes they’re in these cute little plastic tents,” Lawrence said with a laugh.

Three of the classrooms are designated to the K-5 before- and after- school care, which has been reduced to two. The first nine weeks of the school year are online, placing extra strain on teachers that now have to use systems like Skyward and Zoom to do school.

“We are trying to come up with a system where my childcare teachers are not certified,elementary school teachers, and they don’t have access to these programs and all of that other stuff that parent and teacher do to check assignments,” Lawrence said.

During the shutdown, the ELC mainly focused on providing food and activities to students and families.

“We were providing weekly meal distributions. Parents could come and drive-through, and we would pack enough food for at least five days,” Lawrence said.

”We also had family activity packs; the teachers put together activities and lessons, and we encouraged the families to share pictures on Facebook doing the activities.

Lawrence said that’s much more than their mission. “We are just supposed to be providing child care.”

Each classroom has had to scale down its class sizes and reengineer the functionality of the room to keep kids and staff safe. Older kids classes have been scaled down from 28 to 12, and kids age 5 and older must wear masks indoors. Preschool rooms were reduced from 18 to eight students.

Though the ELC is supported and led by the Suquamish Tribe it is state and federally funded, and accepts members from other tribes as well as non-natives.

“We have to go through state and federal eligibility requirements, which are risk-factor based. A huge one is an income, low income, then there’s others like foster and homeless kids and various other risk factors and those are weighted.

“There are times where even though the tribe paid for this building and pays over 60 percent of the operating costs, there are times where tribal member children are running the risk of being squeezed out because of federal and state governments assistance on a low income,” Lawrence said.

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