On the very first day of the COVID-19 shutdown, Educational Enrichment Systems (EES) implemented its standard emergency closures, anticipating a quick return to normalcy.

As the pandemic progressed and schools transitioned to distance learning, the “see you in two weeks” exchanged between employees turned into a rush to address the rising needs of San Diego’s working families.

“If organizations like ours shut down, essential workers won’t have childcare,” Robin Layton, EES President and CEO, recalled expressing to state representatives as she advocated for the funding needed to reopen. The local nonprofit child development agency provides high-quality early education programs to working families throughout San Diego County.

Despite the immense challenges this past year, EES was able to:

  • increase their staff by more than 50,
  • open five additional full-day, year-round early education centers in Vista and the South Bay,
  • and ensure that parents could continue to go to work and support their families.

With support from The San Diego Foundation, including a five-year grant commitment from the Guy C. Clum Fund at The San Diego Foundation awarded as part of the launch of the Early Childhood Initiative in 2018, and an Early Childhood Initiative Resilience Grant awarded in 2020, EES defied the odds and continued serving parents and families amid the COVID-19 crisis.

The Challenges Facing San Diego’s Workforce

The Early Childhood Initiative was launched thanks to a $13.8 million gift from the Guy C. Clum Fund at The San Diego Foundation.

“We have no precedence for how to serve families in this way,” Blake Hofstad, Director of Partnerships and Impact at EES, recalled when he realized the daunting task of making sure parents could access the services they needed outside of childcare.

The EES family liaisons team, with support from the enrollment team, went into swift action, developing and updating daily a pandemic-specific resource guide that outlined where families could access food distribution centers, get assistance with rent and bill payments, and more.

While distance learning was becoming the norm for schools across the region, EES knew that this option was not feasible long-term for their essential workers. According to the 2020 Workforce + Childcare report, households with children where all parents are working make up 70 percent of San Diego families.

EES needed to reopen its early childhood education sites as soon as possible to support working families and continue providing high-quality early education experiences to San Diego children.

Reopening During a Crisis

Despite COVID-19-related delays, with combined support from The San Diego Foundation, EES was able to open five additional centers in addition to the slow and steady re-opening of its other sites across San Diego County, which began in June 2020.

The three South Bay centers opened in July 2020, the Monte Vista Early Education Center opened its doors in January 2021, and the Vista Early Learning Center opened shortly after in February.

“The biggest thing we wanted to do when we reopened was create a safe environment,” Celine Krimston, Vice President and COO at EES, emphasized. Celine and the EES team continued to follow state and County guidelines, requiring face coverings for all adults and children 2 years of age and older, as well as maintaining physical distancing.

The guidelines also required significantly reduced capacity. Each classroom had one cohort – 10 students and two teachers, with no crossover, tours or visits from other staff members.

“Getting ready to get ready took hundreds of hours,” Robin expressed.

With additional support from the COVID-19 Community Response Fund at The San Diego Foundation, EES was able to provide approximately 10,000 distance learning activity kits during the past year to toddlers and preschoolers who were not able to immediately return to the in-person sites due to capacity limitations.

At Vista Early Learning Center, the joy that young children feel at being able to interact with each other again is palpable, even through their masks. The preschoolers at Vista have been maintaining a garden throughout the summer, growing basil, zucchini, beautiful sunflowers and more. With the cohort requirement lifted, staff numbers have increased, allowing for more outdoor play and engagement.

A Fundamental Piece of the Economy 

Recent studies found that in the last year children between the ages of 3 and 5 have lost important learning and developmental opportunities affecting school readiness due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

By January and February of 2021, many parents who weren’t essential workers were back to work and needing childcare. Blake expressed that to be able to have spaces like Monte Vista Early Education Center and Vista Early Learning Center created in the middle of a pandemic was a huge lifeline to those families.

“There is a nationwide newfound respect and understanding of just how critical the childcare sector is,” Blake emphasized. Increasing access to quality early care and education (ECE) for all working families will help foster equity of opportunity across the San Diego region, and build resilient communities that have supportive services in place for future crises, as is outlined in The San Diego Foundation new Strategic Plan.

Blake hopes that people will start to view early care and education not as a “cherry on top” of child development, but rather a fundamental piece of our economy and how we support working families while preparing youth for the future.

Learn more about The San Diego Foundation Early Childhood Initiative, which aims to boost region-wide efforts to increase access to affordable, quality early care for children in San Diego, strengthening families and supporting a competitive regional workforce.

Apply Now for the Early Childhood Initiative Equitable Opportunities Grant