After three months of being involved with the COVID-19 response, the Naval Support Activity Bethesda staff who take care of the children of military families remain as ready as ever to accomplish their mission.
Kenae Cleveland is a Child Youth Program (CYP) lead at the Child Development Centers (CDC). She’s been with the program for eight years and currently works with infants.
In the midst of COVID-19, she says some of her friends have asked why she’s willing to go work.
“They ask why I still go to work when there’s a pandemic outside,” Cleveland explains, “I tell them, ‘because I actually like my job.’ We have so much going on, it’s not even just the kids, it’s the hands-on experience. We have kids with multiple needs that I get to do stuff with and I enjoy doing it, so I have no problem coming to work. I’m not just here for the paycheck.”
Cornetia Evans, a CYP assistant director, agrees.
“I think that speaks to the entire program,” she says.
Evans, who has been with the program for 2 1/2 years, says the staff are largely intent on being there to ensure service members can continue meeting their own mission requirements.
“At the beginning of this, care providers had the option to say, ‘I’m scared, I don’t feel safe coming to work,’” she recalls. “But we didn’t have that. We had most of the staff say, ‘I’m willing to do this. I know that we need to help the community. I know that we need to help our families. They’re taking care of us, we’re going to take care of their kids.’”
To do that, environmental considerations had to be examined and addressed.
The first was cleaning.
“The staff are to clean and disinfect the toys and the environment and as they see needed,” says Doreen Mundy, assistant training and curriculum specialist. “They are to wash their hands, parents are to wash their hands, and children are to wash their hands when they’re coming in the building, during ‘transition-ins,’ and during feedings.”
Mundy has been with the program four years.
“They no longer practice family-style dining in the classroom now,” she continues. “The teachers serve the children. We have hand sanitizer at the front desk for the parents and the staff. The children come in and take a squirt before they come in contact with the door handles and stuff.”
Tiffany Smith, training and curriculum specialist, has been with CYP for five years.
She says it isn’t just the inside.
“They also wipe down the playgrounds so children can go outdoors,” she adds.
Evans points out they also have some dedicated assistance from outside the CYP staff.
“NSA Bethesda hired a contracting team to come clean throughout the day, including door handles, keyboards, front desk area, bathrooms, throughout the day. There’s been a contracting team to assist us with some of the common space cleaning that we couldn’t continuously clean every 15-20 minutes.”
To balance the resources required for cleaning and still ensure children of mission essential personnel (MEP) could receive the safest care possible, the program narrowed eligibility to just MEP families, cutting the usual daily enrollment from 400 to around 100. This allowed CYP to consolidate the main program into one building and cut staff into four shifts of about 30 each. Those shifts are assigned two apiece to two teams. The two teams rotate every two weeks.
The result was a reduction of exposure risk for everyone including staff and children.
A minor exception to this tactic was the creation of the School Age Children program. CYP Director Jessica Humphries recognized the burden placed on MEP families with children enrolled in public schools. Many local schools had moved entirely to online learning and closed their doors to classroom learning. That meant children had to stay home, even if their parents were mission essential.
“Ms. Humphries came in on a weekend and she basically created this school age program overnight,” says Evans. “Ms. Tiffany is the supervisor over there. She goes and she - with all the different schools - makes sure the children are doing their homework, getting everything turned in on time, because their parents are working.”
The children in the school age program, who range in age from 6-12, are cared for in a separate building on the CDC grounds.
Smith enjoys the challenge of making sure they get their work done. She also says it doesn’t stop her from checking in on the children she would normally be caring for.
“We see the kids as our kids,” Smith explains. “I’m not their mom, but that’s still my baby right there. So, I’m going to check on them. Even though I’m with the school age program, I still have nine kids from the CDC, I’ll come over and ask, ‘how is so-and-so doing?’ They’re our kids. We like to see them growing. We like to see them be happy and we want this to be as normal for them as possible.”
Ultimately, staff say they see themselves as part of the frontline and mission essential, says Evans, and they find satisfaction in doing what they do.
“I think we are making a difference because the staff are deciding to come here every day even though some of the children we are taking care of are not assigned to our CYP programs. We see that we are helping the families,” she emphasizes. “Doctors are needed at hospitals whether they’re on base or off base, but they’re a military family. Like Ms. Tiffany said, we created a school age program which we did not have in the past because we are trying to help the community by taking care of their children. If we’re thinking outside of the box trying to help the community, that’s our little part that we can do.”
Smith says being a mom helps her understand why her work is so important.
“My son is home because he’s with his dad,” she reflects. “Yes, we are mission essential because if it wasn’t for the fact that his dad was home, I would have to find some place for him to go. In order for any of us to do the work we have to do, we have to have someone to take care of our kids. I always say that childcare is one of those things where if there isn’t childcare - then how do you have a working community, how do you have businesses?”
Though they don’t know what it will look like, the staff say they know this is temporary. Until then, says Mundy, they take things day by day.
“At this moment we’re just ‘living in the moment.’ Day by day, it’s different,” she says.
Evans says ultimately, it's just important for the families to know their kids are ok.
“Like Ms. Kenae says, we love what we do. It isn’t a huge inconvenience for us, because we like being here and we want to make sure the kids are comfortable, the kids are safe, and the parents don’t have to worry once they come in and drop their children off. We got it - go do your job, and we’ll take care of your children. They’ll be here ready for you when you’re done.”