Essential need for childcare workers made clear by pandemic

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Yasmine Cervantes flavors cotton candy. Image: Exodis Ward.

It’s late in the evening when I’m able to reach Yasmin Cervantes. She tells me she’s feeling nervous because she’s never done an interview before. We both chuckle. I reassure her that we’re just having a conversation about her experience. She chuckles again and begins to tell me about her day.

I can imagine the sound of squeaky voices singing Itsy, Bitsy Spider filling the air. The little ones, between the ages of 18 months and 2 years sit alongside their teacher, their chubby fingers struggling to match the intricate hand gestures. At the Logan Child Development Center, an extension of Fort Bliss, this classroom is a space where the newest frontline workers are found: child care workers. 

“It feels overwhelming. When I think essential, I’m thinking of first responders, nurses, and doctors,” Cervantes says. “A lot of people can’t work if they don’t have daycare. It’s kind of sad that it took a pandemic for them to realize, ‘Oh wow. They really are important in our lives’ and feel more appreciative of us.” 

Cervantes tells me that while many view childcare as glorified babysitting, she does more than feed and change diapers. She writes lesson plans to teach to them. She helps them to better understand and work through their emotions. She teaches them how to make friends and get along with others. 

The sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid March shook the day-to-day routine. Some changes were minor, like how multiple break spaces replaced the one main break room, or how staff enters from the side doors rather than the main door.  Work schedules for a period of time became less regular. The big changes surrounded the children.

“Cleaning is the most important thing at the center. Everything is disinfected and sanitized every single time. That’s one thing that’s kind of hard to keep up on because toddlers touch and put everything in their mouths,” Cervantes says. “When there’s other things going on around us, like a child doing something unsafe, we have to stop what we’re doing and focus on that, but it keeps us busy.” 

Despite the changes, Cervantes says that the kids haven’t seemed to notice the effects of the pandemic. Toddlers don’t wear masks until they’re three. The only thing the kids know, she says,  is that it’s a little harder to kiss Mom and Dad goodbye and their teachers look funny with half their face covered. Occasionally, they try to take their teachers’ masks off, but they’re kindly told that the teachers have to leave them on.

It is stressful but Cervantes says she has a great team that works well together. She gushes about her coworkers and emphasizes that “nothing is possible unless everyone works together.”

Though every precaution is taken to keep everyone safe, there are hazards she and her coworkers can’t avoid. Like the three parents who are doctors and their children.  

“There was an incident a couple of months ago. I have a parent who works at Del Sol (medical center) and she works with Covid patients,” Cervantes says. “I’m trying my best to keep my distance from her and she understands. I do my greetings and farewells from afar and when she’s gone, I wash my hands, and I disinfect every area that she was in to kind of keep it safer and cleaner.”

The increase in cleanliness has reached her household too. Her husband and 18-month-old daughter are just as at-risk as she is, but they have a nightly-ritual to keep them safe.

“I come home and I immediately hop into the shower,” Cervantes says. “Then, I get to hug them both finally.”

As stressful as the pandemic has been for Cervantes, the irregular work schedule gave her time to pursue a long-held dream of starting her own business.  

“Originally, I had the idea last year in January, but I started this summer in May. Perfect time to start a business,” Cervantes says, chuckling. “It was kind of intimidating at first, I was thinking ‘maybe this isn’t the best time, maybe I should wait until the pandemic is over’ but I thought no, let’s give it a go.”

Cervantes and her husband started Cloud Nine, a cotton candy company that sells organic, naturally flavored cotton candy. Initially, the goal was to cater events, but with gatherings limited to 10 or fewer people, she instead sells packaged sweets to better suit the drive-through celebration culture that has developed.

The cotton candy comes in 14 different flavors with borderland-inspired flavors like horchata, watermelon with tajin and marzipan. She sells alcohol infused flavors too. 

But for Cervantes and her husband, the business is more than just sweets.

“My husband and I have always dreamed of having our own business. We created this together and it’s coming to life,” Cervantes says.  In five years, they’d like to be a part of a party venue for weddings and baby showers. In ten years, they’d like to run their own venue.

Though Cervantes plans for when the pandemic is over, she continues to take it day-by-day. When I ask her what she’d like to say to other essential workers, she takes a moment to think.

“We are needed in this country and we are important,” she says.“We need to continue to support and better this country. Without essential workers, how would we do that? Just keep continuing your hard work and being brave.”

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