EVERY DAY, she sees them, young students with enthusiastic minds and caring hearts confidently walking through the doors of The Episcopal Preschool (EPS) of Lake Forest, eager to begin a new day.
And Melanie Upfold cannot help but smile.
“Even with their masks on, you can still see glimpses of their joy,” gushes the EPS Director, who officially took the helm of the much-loved school in July 2020. “You can see it in their eyes. They come to school happy. And during times where they can take their masks off, we once again see their smiles, and that’s why we are here. For a moment, it can feel as if nothing has changed.”
But indeed, everything has changed. An ongoing pandemic has altered the day to day workings of EPS, a fixture within the Lake Forest community with a long legacy of inspiring the littlest of hearts via a mix of creativity, academics, and signature play-based learning. These days, students and staff undergo temperature and symptom checks, wear face coverings, and utilize individual supplies for the safety of each other.
“It’s amazing how fast children can adapt,” explains Upfold, who took on the role of director upon the retirement of Melissa Cunniff, who had devoted 22 years to the preschool. “Children are so flexible. They just continue on their way with a mask on their face and hand sanitizer on their hands. It has not phased them. They still enjoy story time and their music and movement time, and they love being able to interact with their friends. It has been amazing to see them lead us as well. They have shown us that it’s going to be OK and we are going to get through this together. We are all going to be stronger because of this.”
That is not to say that the past year has not held its share of challenges. At this time last year, Upfold found herself considering a move to the director position at the school, an outreach ministry of The Church of the Holy Spirit (CHS), just as humanity headed into what would soon become the catastrophic, pandemic-stained year of 2020.
“I had worked here for so many years with former Director Melissa Cunniff, so I felt like I had a pretty good grasp of what I was dealing with,” remembers Upfold, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education from The University of Newcastle, Australia.
Indeed, Upfold knew firsthand the spirit of its staff and students, and even knew the school from the viewpoint of a parent, as she had sent her own children to the school.
“And then March turned up,” she remembers. “And seemingly overnight, it was a whole different picture. It was nerve-racking.”
Suddenly, Upfold found herself as one of the countless educators having to deal with the relentless pressures of a COVID-19 pandemic and the roller coaster of restrictions that would soon face her and her staff every day.
“When we closed our doors on March 13, we thought it would just be for a couple of weeks,” recalls Upfold, whose school educates children from 2 to 5 years old. “By Monday, we were already reaching out with our favorite Play Doh recipe. It was so sudden and there was so much that was unknown. We really wanted to maintain our connection with our children. So, we did that via a wide range of video content and Facetime calls with the children. We wanted to maintain a sense of normalcy for them and a routine for everyone.”
However, they soon realized—along with the rest of the world—that the pandemic was not going away anytime soon. Virtual learning continued through the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year and despite the unusual circumstances, EPS students continued to thrive.
“Obviously, my 2-year-old daughter Adriana did not understand the situation, but once we started Facetiming with her teacher, she started opening up more,” explains EPS parent Alexandra Priola. “She looked forward to those one-on-one conversations in an intimate setting. She had homework to do and stories to read and songs to sing, and she thrived.”
Even more impressive was the communication between the school and exasperated parents looking for answers.
“As a parent, one of the best things EPS did was maintain open and honest communication the whole way through,” explains Priola. “They were checking all the boxes and maintaining best practices through it all. They would even host conference calls for the parents, where we all could listen and react and learn. Everyone’s voices were being heard. A number of the parents are doctors and lawyers, and they were providing their perspectives as well. We were working as a true community.”
And by last fall, Upfold and her entire team were able to offer students in-person learning, while taking every precaution necessary to ensure the safest of environments.
“Since being back, it really has been pretty seamless,” remarks Priola. “As a parent, you not only have this fear of children falling back academically, but you also want them to be able to maintain social interactions in a safe way. And that’s exactly what EPS was able to do. My daughter still lights up when I ask her about her day. It’s such a comfort as a parent.”
And while much of the future remains unknown, Upfold is strong in her position that she wants to continue offering an in-person education for all EPS students.
“That’s always been our intention,” Upfold says. “As a DCFS facility, there are certain guidelines we need to adhere to, such as having smaller class sizes and having a heightened cleaning procedure. We are following procedures and implementing our own, and we continue to thrive. We are building community in and out of the classroom.”
And it is this community that Upfold looks forward to being a part of for years to come.
“From day one, we have all wanted the same thing, and that is to maintain the health and safety of our children,” she concludes. “And that’s exactly what we have done. Our children are happy and healthy, and we are all getting through this … together.”