Head of the class
How one preschool director is helping her staff and students move forward
Can it get any better than spring break in Florida?
Like many Americans every March,1 Jeneane Rupert used her vacation time this year to relax on a beach with her family, lounge by a pool and soak up some sun. With both of her sons graduating soon, her youngest from high school and her oldest from college, Rupert’s spring break vacation provided a much-anticipated celebration for her close-knit family.
And, along with an itinerary that also included a visit to Disney World, it certainly turned out to be a trip to remember.
“It was great to get away,” says Rupert, a preschool director at an early education and care center in Littleton, Colorado. “We had all been looking forward to having fun and making new memories together.”
To Rupert, though, the one memory she may never be able to forget may actually be her first day back in the classroom.
As Rupert was enjoying the warm weather in Orlando, the coronavirus outbreak was picking up steam across the U.S., with several states implementing social distancing measures and shelter-in-place orders.2 Many of those safety regulations forced some companies to transition to a work-from-home model,3 which meant more parents were suddenly available to watch their kids while on the job.
“I realized how massive this was when I returned on day one,” Rupert says. “We took a big hit at the beginning. Every week, it seemed at least five, six or seven more children were staying home with their mom and dad.”
In fact, the preschool’s enrollment would eventually plummet from 152 students to just 35 by the end of April. For a privately owned business (serving an age range of four months old to seven years old), that drastic drop led to a steep decline in tuition payments and a temporary reduction in faculty members — even though the essential organization has been permitted to keep its doors open during the pandemic.4
Rupert, who wears many hats in her leadership role, has also had to cancel or postpone several upcoming projects and priorities to pinch pennies and cut costs in the short term, such as hosting an annual summer camp event, conducting a fall registration campaign and ordering traditional supplies for learning.
“It’s been a stressful experience for everyone,” says Rupert, who is in charge of managing the preschool’s staff, overseeing the curriculum and running the payroll. “We’ve had to maneuver things around and adapt on the fly.”
But instead of dwelling on the current disruption, Rupert is maintaining a positive outlook for the future.
As she puts it, “There’s been a lot of good, too.”
For starters, Rupert was able to apply for and receive a loan through the new Payroll Protection Program (PPP) to help compensate the entire team.5 The provision in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) will provide eight weeks’ worth of wages for the 26 permanent preschool teachers at nearly 100% of their regular income.6
Prior to their employer being approved for the PPP, some of the preschool’s teachers were fulfilling a voluntary furlough period while others were completing their duties on a tentative part-time schedule. Most of those individuals, Rupert says, qualified to file for unemployment to help supplement a portion of their missing income, joining the more than 40 million Americans who have submitted claims to collect these crucial benefits.7
Now, with a PPP package that will help fund salaries into the summer, the full staff is at full strength once again.
“It was a sense of relief to all of us,” says Rupert, noting that enrollment is already approaching 100 kids as statewide regulations begin to loosen. “We feel very fortunate we could help teachers bridge that financial gap.”8
That bridge would only get stronger when the local preschool community stepped up to offer even more savings support.
Parents who chose not to return for the remainder of the semester due to COVID-19 concerns had the option to pay 50% of their tuition to secure a spot for their child going forward. While Rupert expected many people to take advantage of the opportunity, she was in disbelief when she learned several families had joined together to donate the other half of their normal fees to give to her staff.
“Seeing that kind of response was amazing,” says Rupert, a 16-year veteran in early education. “That had a huge impact on our teachers. It helped them pay rent or mortgage or buy groceries.”
To show their gratitude, Rupert and her colleagues organized a drive-through parade in the parking lot for parents, students and teachers to reunite as one preschool again. There were posters, signs and balloons. There were smiles, “air hugs” and honks. And, of course, there were plenty of tears.
In some ways, maybe it can get better than spring break in Florida.
“We all stood from the sidewalk and waved,” Rupert says. “I don’t think there was a dry eye — it was super emotional.
“We missed everyone.”
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1 Palm Beach Post, “Top spring break spots? Florida, of course,” 2017.
2 CNN, “White House finalizing new coronavirus guideline options for Trump ahead of 15-day expiration,” March 2020.
3 NBC News, “Coronavirus has lifted the work-from-home stigma. How will that shape the future?” May 2020.
4 CBS Denver, “Colorado Stay-At-Home Order Explained: What Will And Won’t Be Open,” March 2020.
5 U.S. Small Business Administration, “Paycheck Protection Program,” 2020, sba.gov
6 CNN, “Senate approves House-passed Paycheck Protection Program reform bill,” March 2020.
7 CNN Business, “Nearly 43 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits during the pandemic,” June 2020.
8 AP/U.S.New.com, “Colorado Offices Open at Half Capacity as Coronavirus Eases,” May 2020.
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