How to Start an Online Early Childhood Learning Program During COVID-19

With child care centers everywhere closing indefinitely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, providers are now facing the unprecedented challenge of figuring out how to continue providing value to families despite not being able to be in the same physical location as their children. 

Some centers have simply closed their doors and will pick up where they left off once the quarantine has passed, but more and more centers are figuring out how to bring their services online to enable children to continue learning from home.

At HiMama, we have been inspired by our amazing customers who have pivoted their businesses to focus on distance learning to keep their centers running while closed for COVID-19. Using a combination of online messaging, live video calls and a whole lot of creativity, they are more committed than ever to helping parents provide the best care for their children.

In this guide, we’ll share some of the early best practices that have been emerging for starting an online early childhood learning program.

A “New” Value Proposition

The most obvious question a parent will have when your center is closed is, “why should I still pay them if my kiddo is at home?” 

By now, parents — especially those who are also working from home during the crisis — are likely overwhelmed with figuring out how to keep their children busy with developmentally-appropriate activities throughout the day. They need someone to help plan their days and ensure they are fully supported to achieve  all of their developmental milestones.

In other words, they need you.

Parents now more than ever will appreciate your services. Keeping the kids entertained on weekends is one thing, but being with their kiddos all day every day for weeks (or months from the looks of things) is a whole different ball game. They need your help any way they get it.

But the funny thing is that this is what you have been providing all along — it’s just now in a different format. Parents may need to be more hands on, but you are still the child care expert in their lives and you can continue being invaluable even from a distance.

Adapt Your Existing Programming

The best place to start is by looking at the resources you already have available. In a typical week your center produces many different things, including:

  • Activity schedules
  • Meal plans
  • Daily reports
  • Parent communications

Although you will not physically be there with the kiddos, these are all things you can continue to provide online. Parents may need to take a more active role in all of this, but guidance and support are important services that they will be willing to pay for when done right.

Technology

It doesn’t take much to connect online these days. All that you, your staff and families will need is:

  • Computer or tablet
  • Internet connection
  • Child care communications app (or email)
  • Video meeting software
  • Payment software

For a more detailed overview of how to get your technology up and running, see our Virtual Teaching 101 for Early Childhood Educators post.

Types of Online Child Care Services

As more centers are beginning to offer virtual child care services, new best practices are continuously being developed. So far, we have seen centers typically offering a combination of the following:

At-Home Activities

Send parents detailed weekly or daily activity schedules with activities for the children to do that will keep them occupied and help their development. Try to choose ones that will be the easiest for parents to facilitate, meaning items that are likely already in the house or easy to find, and if possible can be done with minimal supervision so parents can get some work done while their kiddos are busy.

As children complete the activities, have parents send you pictures and notes of their progress so that you can continue your assessments. It can be helpful to provide them with a list of questions or things to look for so you can get the details you’ll need for your reports.

If you need some inspiration for activities to send parents, check out our Preschool & Daycare Activities page!

Virtual Lessons

Virtual lessons using video meeting software like Zoom or Google Hangouts is a great way for children to remain connected to their teachers and classmates, which is so important for their social development. 

Many lessons and activities that are done in the classroom can be adapted for this online format. Some ideas to help get you started are:

  • Circle time
  • Reading books
  • Sing alongs
  • Show and tell
  • Dancing
  • Making music
  • Scavenger hunt

Screen time for young children is a controversial topic, and we are not recommending that you have the kiddos sit in front of a computer all day. Lessons should be between 30-60 minutes, after which they will likely begin to get restless and move on to something else. 

That doesn’t mean that the activity has to stop, though! Incorporate homework into your lessons to extend learning beyond the length of your virtual class. For example, Juline McLean, Program Director at The Cathay School, shared in our Setting Up Remote Learning Webinar how they provide homework for the children to create their own musical instruments like filling an empty water bottle with macaroni to create shakers, to use in their virtual music classes.

Recorded Videos

Virtual meetups are ideal for providing interaction with the kiddos, but recorded videos are a great way to fill in the gaps between lessons for the children to learn from a familiar face. This also gives parents the opportunity to incorporate activities based on their schedule. For example, a pre-recorded bedtime story reading helps with their night time routine without having to be live. 

Unlike random YouTube videos, providing parents with exclusive videos recorded by the teachers at your center will allow children to continue with their lessons that have been created just for them based on their stages of development.

Meals

Help parents provide nutritious meals and snacks for their children by sharing your meal plans with them. Chances are you already have these schedules written already, and providing them to parents will give them one less thing to have to think about.

If you wanted to go one step further, you could actually make the meals and deliver a week’s worth of meals and snacks right to their homes (while maintaining appropriate social distancing protocols, of course). You may have never imagined becoming a meal delivery service when getting involved in child care, but businesses of every kind are finding creative ways to survive the crisis.

Parent Support

You may be providing “child care” but don’t forget to provide “parent care” as well! If you haven’t already, let parents know that you’re still there for them by giving them a call or text to see how they’re holding up. 

Another option is to have a virtual parent meet-up in the evening after all the kiddos have gone to bed. This is a great opportunity for your parent community to get together and share feedback on what they like about your online services and what you can improve upon. Plus, it’s also a nice way for parents to socialize with other adults which can be very hard to come by these days.

Check-Ins

An easy-to-forget component of in-person child care are the impromptu conversations that happen at pick-up and drop-off. Have a weekly check-in with families for the parents to connect with you or a teacher to go over any questions they may have, share information about how the child has developed that week, and maintain that strong personal relationship that your center and a family has.

Charging

Cash isn’t a viable option when providing online services, which many centers typically offer. If you don’t have an online payment method, now is the perfect time to set one up. You can keep things simple by accepting etransfers, or provide a professional billing and payments solution like HiMama’s billing software.

If you need a little help getting buy-in from parents to pay for online services, use our email template!

As for how to structure your billing, the best option for you will largely depend on the types of services that you are providing.

Subscription

Similar to your regular tuition charges, a subscription model is a recurring fee that entitles families to access your services. You can keep things simple and charge one fee to access everything or offer different subscription levels that vary in price depending on what families will access. For example, you could offer:

  • A ‘lite’ subscription for access to just your weekly activity schedules and child development reports.
  • A ‘standard’ subscription for everything in ‘lite’ plus a daily virtual class and meal plans.
  • A ‘deluxe’ subscription for everything in ‘standard’ plus daily one-on-one lessons with their teacher.

This is a good option for centers who already know what they will be providing on a regular basis, since parents will be expecting certain things regularly for the fees that they are being charged.

A La Carte

Instead of a standard base fee, some centers are now charging per item. For example, you can charge for each virtual class, or sell packages for several classes at a discounted price (e.g. $10 per class or $100 for 12 classes). This option is particularly great if you are still in the process of figuring out what services to provide, since parents will only be paying for the specific things that they would like access to and have no expectations otherwise.

Donations

Some centers where parents still have stable employment can even start a donation fund. Being transparent about how this contributes to fixed costs during quarantine is a good way to rally your community and fundraise where you can. 

What is YOUR Center Doing?

Since remote early childhood education is such a new concept, let’s figure out the best way to go about early childhood virtual learning together. Share what your center is doing for remote learning in the comments below!

Additional resources:

Michael Keshen

Michael is the Content Manager at HiMama, with over 7 years of online content publishing experience. He is the current editor in chief for HiMama's early childhood education blog and ECE Weekly newsletter. When not developing content for early childhood professionals, he can usually be found out and about with his wife and daughter exploring all that Toronto has to offer, or playing music with his karaoke band.

5 comments

  • Cathy Kaitting says:

    The government has said we CANNOT CHARGE parents !
    Circles went out the door a few years ago!
    We follow the child’s lead then set out activities for what the children are interested in!
    The internet is already full of activities for children! Parents are capable of checking these out just like we are.
    Our parents are glad to be at home and learning new things with their children. Preschoolers cannot sit and watch their teacher for 30 to 60 minutes, never mind a toddler on a screen. That is crazy for teachers to do as well!!
    I am very disappointed in reading the above information from your company.
    Forget your business and let families learn to bond with each other away from their teachers who practically raise them. Parents at home with their children is the best thing that could happen. You need to give parents more credit without the help of teachers going online for this age group. I spoke to many parents and co workers before I wrote this email and they have totally supported me!! Stay home and stay safe!!

    • Michael Keshen says:

      Hi Cathy, thanks for writing in and I am sorry that the article has disappointed you. It was also definitely not my intention to not give parents any credit in their abilities to look after their children. Based on feedback from many of our customers, we have learned that they are having success with short virtual classes and sending at-home activities for parents to do with their children. They have also shared that children have been missing their teachers and classmates during this time, and keeping the lines of communication open has helped lift their spirits and still feel connected with their community. I understand that the idea of remote teaching in early childhood is not for every center, but since more and more centers are offering online services during the crisis, we felt it was imperative to share the success that our customers have been having so that other centers are following early best practices to provide the best options for families.

  • Alli says:

    Be careful with zoom hackers have gave teacher addresses out .
    There is alot of student teacher platforms that are completely free to use.
    Remember not all children will have web cam or enough of a signal for video streaming. Visual art, audio , parent cooperative reading ,with interactive activities offline or pdf format is a good option.

  • Stacy says:

    Thank you for providing this information. Cathy is clearly not working with special education students or high-risk families who need a stable adult checking in with them. Since all of our staff are required to continue services, the suggestions and videos you are providing for free will be helpful for developing content and engaging families. I guess some people are not doing well with isolation or, no longer able to blame the stress of work for their attitudes, are just grumpy people who cannot see things from anyone’s perspective but their own. Also, Zoom is not being hacked as hacking is not required for people to access open content or collect meeting addresses from folks who struggle with maintaining confidential information on the Internet. Those using Zoom properly cannot be accessed by outside parties. Anyway, I look forward to learning a new skill as I attempt to develop online coaching sessions. Thank you.

  • Mary Reeves says:

    Thank God for making all info and webinars possible & thank you Ron and your entire team as well.

    Be blessed and encourage because you’re,
    Mary

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