Grade school kids at All About Kids Learning Academy work at socially distanced desks as they go through e-learning for school. Credit: Laura Zornosa/Block Club Chicago

GREATER GRAND CROSSING — When Chicago Public Schools announced it would start the fall semester with remote learning, working parents like Clara Larkin were stuck.

Larkin, a registered nurse, wasn’t able to stay home as her three school-aged children did their classwork online. Her kids tried studying at their grandmother’s house, but Larkin’s mother has health issues — and no internet.

Thankfully, Larkin found Tess Jackson, the owner of All About Kids Learning Academy, 514 E. 75th St., in Greater Grand Crossing.

The South Side day care shut down this spring because of the pandemic. When it reopened in June, it did so with more safety guidelines for younger kids. Then in September, it rolled out a new service: guiding older, school-aged children through e-learning. 

Jackson implemented the broader changes to her facility with the help of city and state financial assistance programs. Now parents like Larkin can keep working while their kids virtual learning supervision.

“It’s just gonna be a lifesaver,” Larkin said. “I work with COVID patients at a community hospital in Chicago. So without [All About Kids] being able to keep my children for e-learning, then I wouldn’t be able to go and help other people during this pandemic.” 

Jackson, 52, started All About Kids from her house in 1998. She moved to the current location on 75th Street in 2003.

All About Kids owner Tess Jackson Credit: Laura Zornosa/Block Club Chicago

To stay afloat, Jackson received a $50,000 loan from the Chicago Community Catalyst Fund and additional funding through Illinois’ Child Care Restoration Grant, which ends in November.

Part of the funding went toward a company subscription to the Brightwheel child care app, which allows staff to be in constant contact with parents — from diaper checks to photo updates of the kids throughout the day.

Brightwheel also lets parents sign in their children electronically from outside of the building, to further protect against spread of the virus.

The 20 staff members clock in, in their street clothes, wash their hands, check their temperatures and change into scrubs. Kids wear masks (or try to), and get their temperatures checked twice per day.

One of the new safety precautions for All About Kids daycare is a remote check-in option, which allows parents to drop off and pick up their kids without coming inside the facility so they can limit potential spread of illness. Credit: Laura Zornosa/Block Club Chicago

Most of the small business loans and grants went to an unexpected place: the kitchen. The child care center — part of the Illinois State Board of Education Child and Adult Food Care Program — has 104 children enrolled, and a lot of mouths to feed three times per day. After COVID-19 arrived, Jackson realized they would need to “pre-plate” those meals.

“We used to do what’s called family-style, so when the cook brought the food to the classroom, if it was 10 kids, she put enough string beans for 10 kids in a bowl, and then we put the bowls on the table, and the kids scooped,” she said. “Pass, scoop, pass, scoop. [With] COVID, you can’t do that.”

On a given day, the morning snack might be whole-grain waffles and milk; lunch could be ravioli with peas, carrots and an orange; and dinner might be ground turkey tacos with lettuce and tomatoes.

“I really take the food as equally important as everything else that we do in the day care because I understand we’re in an area where the majority of our students are low-income,” Jackson said. “Most of their meals are coming from us, so [we’re] making sure we have whole-grain products at least twice a day, fruits and vegetables.”

While much of the state grant money went toward staff salaries and personal protective equipment, some helped support the facility’s two classrooms. Jackson bought smaller desks instead of shared tables to accommodate social distancing.  

All About Kids also had to pay to upgrade its internet services as well.

Kindergarten students at All About Kids Learning Academy work with Chromebooks and worksheets at socially distanced desks and tables. Credit: Laura Zornosa/Block Club Chicago

As a former high school teacher, Jackson said she knows kids need to interact socially as part of their mental and emotional wellbeing.      

“Some of our parents opted to do kindergarten with us,” Jackson said. “That way, the kid is getting actual instruction. As opposed to the kids who have to sit in front of the computer.”

Before the pandemic, kids in grade school used to come to the child care center after school until closing at 6 p.m. Now they spend the whole day in class, some listening over the headsets Jackson ordered.

A student at All About Kids Learning Center points at a chart during a lesson. Credit: Provided.

Logistically, Jackson said she thinks the facility could keep up with e-learning for the rest of the school year, if necessary.

“It’s different for everybody, but I just think that, with something like this, when it’s new, you have to always be at the table: reimagining, reinventing the wheel,” Jackson said of the changes she’s introduced. “Because you don’t know what you’re doing. So, we tried this, it’s not working. OK, so now let’s try to do this.”

It’s proved to be a good fit for Larkin and her kids, Aiden, 10, and Alayah and Alaina, 7.

“It’s like the answer to my prayers, because I need someone to help my children with e-learning, not just sit there and look at them struggle through it,” Larkin said.

It’s also been an affordable solution for Carolyn Major and her 2-year-old son, Robin, who’s been at All About Kids for about 18 months. Major said she’s been pleased with the center’s safety precautions for staff and students.   

“I’ve noticed a big difference because my son isn’t sick,” Major said. “He has seasonal allergies, but I know when I first brought him to day care, my son was getting sick a lot. And I’m like, ‘Why does my baby always have a runny nose, cough, congestion?’”

Robin is learning valuable social skills he wouldn’t have access to without in-person interaction, said Major, who dreams of her son being an astronaut.

“I want my son to be a part of that team: building” rocket ships, Major said. “I want him to engineer; I want to push my son to be better and greater than me and his father. And greater than his grandma, and the ancestors that come before him. All About Kids definitely represents that.”

Preschool students play at All About Kids Learning Academy. Credit: Laura Zornosa/Block Club Chicago

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