By Dallas Gagnon
Mr. Potato Head stood on a table with a singular pair of child’s eyes looking at him.
His own eyes could have been on his chin, or where his ears should have been, but Mr. Potato Head could see that the next, nearest preschooler sat six feet away from him and his companion.
Until Massachusetts reopened on May 29, Mr. Potato Head and the children at the University Childhood Education Centers functioned within strict COVID-19 guidelines.
Since reopening, social distancing guidelines and sanitation protocols have relaxed. University field study students have been reintroduced into the classrooms, along with communal sharing. Classroom enrollment levels have also increased.
Now, Mr. Potato Head has many more eyes looking at him.
According to Julie Bettencourt, the assistant director of the Child Development Center, this year, Mr. Potato Head “might be out on the table now and everyone is using him and then we will wash him after.”
However, last school year, there were three Mr. Potato Head bins and only one child could use that bin at a time. When a student was done playing with Mr. Potato Head, the toy would be placed into a “dirty monkey bin.”
If another child wanted to use a toy that was in the dirty bin, they would have to wait until an educator cleaned it.
Valerie Hytholt, director of the centers for early childhood education, said, “When Governor Baker said the restrictions were all done, the department of early education also went along.
“After research found COVID-19 wasn’t transmitted by items or objects as much as was first expected, the children can now share materials. … We have learning centers back where we are encouraging more sharing, playing together, and doing activities together,” she added.
Last year, the children had to be taught separately. They had all their own materials and individual desks. Any item a child came in contact with would have to be cleaned after they were finished playing, said Hytholt.
Cara Chase, assistant director of the Early Childhood Center, said, “It was a big change for us to individualize the learning and playing.
“Children just don’t innately play alone, so having them back in a center-based play where they are in groups and working on projects and playing with manipulatives and building together and all that kind of fun learning experiences they have is nice to have back,” said Chase.
According to Bettencourt, though there is still “a significant amount of cleaning, it feels like less because not everything is so individualized.”
Last year, if a child was playing with a puzzle or “shared manipulative,” said Chase, “that entire bin or puzzle would need to be cleaned.”
Chase added, “I think it [the extra cleaning] took us away from what we are really trained to do, which is to teach the children and be with the children.”
The children at the centers range in age from 2 years 9 months to 5 years old. Though the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) does not require children to wear masks until the age of 5, the early childhood centers enforce a strict mask-wearing policy, said Hytholt.
According to Chase, the mask-wearing policy “was a team decision” and “was what we felt was safest, not only for the children, but ourselves.”
The students take off their masks when they are outside, napping, or eating.
Hytholt said young children don’t wear masks in other programs, but FSU requires them because college students work at the centers.
Though physical-distancing guidelines have decreased from 6 to 3 feet, Hytholt said, “That’s one thing we could never enforce. Children just play together and developmentally, they should play together. That’s why we definitely keep masks on inside.”
Andrea Pizzotti, an FSU field-study student at the Early Childhood Center, said, “I know social distancing is an effective practice, but in order to create a socially developmental environment, 6 feet apart isn’t going to give them that.”
Last year, the centers’ enrollment decreased by nearly 50%.
Hytholt said the classrooms’ full enrollment capacities are 17 for the Early Childhood Center, and 19 for the Child Development Lab. During the height of the pandemic, both classrooms were only allowed to enroll 10 students per center.
She added, this year, “There are parents who have brought their children into the centers, who last year, because everything was much more cautious, preferred not to come to the center.
“This year and last year are different levels of comfort,” Hytholt said.
Chase said people are staying informed and know “what we are doing here to keep children safe.”
Many enrollees are children of professors and students associated with the University who all must be vaccinated per University mandate.
Pizzotti said, “The vaccinated protect the unvaccinated, so I don’t see a big concern.”
Hytholt said if a child were to show COVID-19 like symptoms they would have to produce a negative COVID test before returning to campus. If symptoms persisted, they would have to produce another negative test.
“EEC provides any child or staff member enrolled or connected to an early childhood center free testing by the state,” she said.
If a child, staff member, or college student were to test positive, Hytholt said she would have to “report it to the Department of Public Health and Framingham Public Health.”
The Department of Public Health would then decide who is considered a close contact and when and how long the centers would be closed.
“Those are firm guidelines and dates we have to follow to keep everyone safe and healthy,” said Hytholt.
However, even after introducing new children and field-study students into the classrooms, the centers haven’t had any COVID-19 cases or closures.
Pizzotti said, “One thing I will say about the Early Childhood Center is that all of the guidelines that they take … make me feel really secure. I don’t feel worried when I’m there.”