Editorial: A Man in Hawai'i Working during the pandemic

I work at The Early School on the island of Oahu in Hawaii as a toddler teacher in the Young Children's Program. When we moved into the Spring Break of 2020 I was very concerned about the Corona virus. So was everyone else in Hawaii. It was the weirdest start to a Spring Break I have ever experienced. I closed that last Friday. It was chaotic at pick up and all everyone was talking about was whether or not we would be open after Spring Break. At the time I doubted it, but eventually our state instituted a Stay at Home Order. Everything closed.

Staying home during the pandemic was challenging, but my family had it easy compared to many others here in Hawaii. Thankfully my wife's job was essential for her company and Jeri was able to easily work from home. Our new director worked hard for months in order to secure a PPP loan for The Early School so I also kept getting a paycheck even though I wasn't working. As our local tourist based economy collapsed and it looked really bad. My family was lucky and we knew it.

During lock down I did a lot of home improvement, cooking, surfing, diving and my outdoor garden looked amazing. I even started kayaking/stand up paddle boarding. My family's general lifestyle and our beautiful country home is set up nicely for social isolation. It wasn't difficult spending most our time at home.

At first I loved how much more time I got to spend with both my wife and daughter. We were actually doing pretty well considering everything that was going on around us. As things progressed my wife Jeri found she liked working from home. My teenage daughter Kea loved how her spring break turned into a permanent vacation.

However, for me as the months passed I slowly recognized I was not quite as comfortable with the new normal as they were. The Early School started discussing doing online classes. At first I was excited. I thought it would be so great to see everyone, even if it was on-line.

In order to provide whatever services we could to our families we started doing Zoom classes. Our YCP team knew it would be difficult doing Zoom classes for infants and toddlers. It was. I tried to be creative. It was sort of fun trying to figure out what would translate well on a computer screen. However, I don't think I was a good Zoom teacher because I really didn't enjoy it. It was actually a little stressful.

It was so nice to see all of the kids and parents in our Young Children's Program. However, for me it was also a little strange. I tried to be super entertaining and I think everyone liked it, but it was weird interacting thru a computer screen. I missed them. I always left Zoom feeling a little sad and unsatisfied. It wasn't enough seeing them broken up on separate screens and it felt a little unnatural to me.

I started to realize how much I missed physically interacting with young children. Then one my wife's co-worker Leena had to come by our house to pick up paper work she needed. She brought her 2 year old daughter Ellia. I was so excited. I brought out some of my favorite toddler toys and circle time stuff. Ellia was equally excited because I think her mom played me up a bit. Leena had wanted me to meet her daughter for a while after she heard I was an infant/toddler teacher. We had the best time. I was so sad when she had to leave.

After Ellia left I instantly knew why I was not as happy as I should have been. It was great being at home all the time. I love our house. I loved being with my family. I loved indulging in my old passions as well as exploring new interesting outdoor experiences with my wife. However, there was one thing that I really missing in my life that I could not replace. I missed being with young children.
I'll be honest. Being a toddler teacher is often draining not matter where you work. Before the pandemic, I was looking forward to Spring Break. I had a relatively easy year, but was exhausted. At first I loved my extended vacation. However, I thought it would only last for a couple of weeks or a month at the most. Obviously, I was wrong.

By the end of April my opinion and attitude about everything had drastically changed. During many of our weekly Zoom staff meetings I openly expressed my feelings. I kept saying "I would happily deal with even the worst tantrum, crying or whining if I could. I even missed the bad stuff". It was so frustrating because I knew there was nothing I could do until the numbers dropped. I kept busy on many class/house projects, worked out a lot and eat a lot of unhealthy food.

In May The Early School did eventually do a limited opening to support the essential workers that needed childcare. Our director asked me if I was comfortable coming back to work. My wife did have some concerns. I knew it was a risk to my family to work directly with the children whose parents were on the front lines of the pandemic.
However, after being home for months I really wanted to go back to work and my family knew it. My daughter Kea volunteered with me during all of her school breaks for the last 4 years. Kea knew my kids almost as well as I did. I was so sad that she could not keep coming. My wife was just as connected to many of my families and they both knew how much I missed everything.

My family knew how much I missed being with young children. We did discuss it but I knew they would be supportive with whatever decision I made. They knew the families well at the Early School and trusted them as much as they trusted me.

As we attempted to figure out how to operate and comply with the new guidelines for the first phase of re-opening of one of the rooms in the preschool of The Early School I was excited, but I was also very uncomfortable. Not only were we instituting a lot of new procedures for everything, but I also had to work in an environment and age group that I was not really familiar with.

My first day was so weird it is hard to describe. I came in early to familiarize myself with as much as I could because I had never really worked at the preschool before. Initially, I was stressed about everything. Everyone seemed a little uncomfortable that first day. However, our group size was small and most of the kids were old enough to understand the new social distancing rules. Many of the kids wanted a hug but a pretend hug or fist pump was usually acceptable.

After I couple of really fun weeks at the preschool, we opened one classrooms of our Young Children Program (18-36 months). Again, I was a little nervous because I was supposed to be the staff member responsible for conveying all that we had learned during the re-opening of the preschool.

Everything went well because of what we had previously learned at the first stage of re-opening. In June as the numbers in Hawaii declined we also opened the other room in the YCP. I was hopeful we were heading in the right direction as the Covid-19 numbers dropped.

I never talked about the fact that I was working. However, my sister in law asked me several times about what it was like was working during the pandemic. I didn't want to field questions about the risks because I was really doing it for personal and not professional reasons. However, I was always honest and pretty much said the same thing both times she asked me. "Sometimes it is a little stressful as the standards change every week but I love being back at work. I am way more concerned when I go to the store then when I go to work."

You would think I am more worried about my exposure at work since so many of my families are on the front lines. However, at work I am in a controlled environmental situation. When I go to the store I cannot control anything. I am always a little stressed no matter what the circumstances are.
It is so stressful and surreal lately. It almost feels like when the effects of the pandemic first started effecting Hawaii. I am worried and it is obvious that everyone else is worried too. The over reactions to social distancing seem to be happening again. Everyone seems scared.

When I shop for my family I try to minimize my exposure to others in every way I can. I try to go early to selective stores when I know one else will be there. Since I have some control over my exposure when I go out I am always a little stressed. However, as a toddler teacher in a small classroom it is difficult to minimize my exposure to the children I work with so I rarely worry about the Corona virus when I am working.

All the teachers at TES have drastically changed everything we do in order to reduce the risks and now it is an ingrained part of our daily routine and everything we do. I usually don't have the time to think about my exposure because I have to keep moving to adjust to whatever is going on since we have so many new procedures.
Working with infants and toddlers with in the current guidelines dictated by Hawaii's DHS is very challenging. The young children I work with are inherently social and have strongly desired my physical attention after not seeing me for so long. In my classroom there is a lot of drooling, diaper changes, crying and hugging. I still attempt to minimize my exposure but in many situations it is very difficult.

Most of the time I am isolated with my small group in a contained area. Initially when we opened the YCP I tried to limit my contact with the kids I worked with. However, I feel it was not as easy to communicate the same standards that were acceptable at the preschool with toddlers. I did my best but eventually I decided that no matter what was going on in the outside world that some occasional hugs were required at the YCP no matter how risky it was.

I now appreciate all young children more than ever. I love being at work. The children I work with are oblivious to what is going on. The carefree dynamic is very comforting when the outside world is so stressful. I'm still worried about the risk to my family but I am sure I made the right decision when I decided to go back to work in May.

I am very concerned about The Early Schools future as the Covid numbers have risen dramatically lately here in Hawaii. The Early School is a very special but it is a small private school. We have struggled along with all the other small schools in Hawaii but we are still open. I look forward to going to work every day. I am lucky and I know it. I get paid to play with young children. I try to appreciate that every day. I go to work a lot now when I am not getting paid. I do it because I want to. I am deeply connected to the school I work at. I love that my efforts might help my school to move forward.

Focusing on helping the families and children I work with instead of the negative effects of the Corona Virus helped me to keep my thoughts centered on what I feel is truly important right now during these confusing times. I am not in control of what is going on around me. However, I am healthy, my family is safe and I am helping others.
George Yamamoto was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. His journey working with young children happened accidentally. After working as a nanny for several years he fortunately obtained an aide position at the Early School many years ago. Since then he has worked at both Early Head Start and Kamehameha Schools. He currently works at the Early School as a lead teacher in their infant/toddler program.