Little Oaks Academy copes with COVID-19

Beth KinnaneInside 640, Our Town Kids

One phoenix has risen from the ashes of what used to be Tennova/St. Mary’s Hospital. What was known in its later years as Tennova Childcare on Oak Hill Drive started in 1967. It was run by nuns of the Sisters of Mercy, primarily providing childcare for health care workers at the hospital. Six years ago, Tennova was sold to Community Health Systems, which wasn’t interested in running a day care. So, a group of parents got together and organized a non-profit to take over operations, and on June 15, 2015, Little Oaks Academy was born.

Local attorney Scott Griswold is a member of Little Oaks’ board of directors and had a daughter in daycare there at the time of the transition. His legal skills have come in handy moving the organization forward from leasing the property to owning it to navigating the uncertain times amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The property purchase was finalized earlier this year. Conveniently, just in time for the pandemic.

Throughout this time, Griswold said they have applied Knox County Health Department and Centers of Disease Control guidelines in the most practical ways possible in order to be safe but keep doors open. They’ve closed briefly only twice since COVID dominated daily existence, once because an asymptomatic teacher had tested positive and again when Knox County cases spiked into the red zone.

“The reality is, people still have to go to work. These working parents still need affordable, quality childcare in order to do that.” Griswold said. “And that can be damned hard to find.”

All teachers and any other adults in the building must be masked. Masks are a no-go with infants and difficult for children from toddler age to 5 or 6. So the solution is constant cleaning, reminders to wash hands, and, unfortunately, tight restrictions on access to the building.

“Previously, we had an open-door policy with parents, in fact, encouraged them to stop in for a visit if their day brought them into the area before pick-up time,” Griswold said. “Sometimes they just want to pop in, give their child a hug, say ‘I love you,’ then be on with the rest of their day. We’re not doing that now.”

Parents can only come in singly, must be masked, and are asked to manage drop-offs and pick-ups in 10 minutes to reduce possible exposure. While guidelines indicate checking temperatures of all before entry, Griswold said restricting access was the best path forward since they had a positive from an asymptomatic teacher, so a temperature check wouldn’t have meant much. Another casualty was an arrangement they had with a nearby retirement home for residents to come in and read stories to the children before nap-time.

“For their safety and the safety of the kids, obviously we couldn’t keep doing that,” he said. “You have to be flexible, but you also have to be smart. Obviously, the smartest thing to do is reduce exposure as much as possible.”

Griswold encouraged all parents needing financial assistance with childcare to look into the Department of Human Services voucher program, especially essential workers. DHS expanded qualifying criteria during the pandemic and has extended those guidelines to the end of the year.

Learn about Little Oaks Academy here and/or financial assistance with childcare here.

Beth Kinnane is a freelance writer and thoroughbred bloodstock agent.

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