“I love going under the sea!” declares one diminutive summer camper in the downtown YMCA Child Development Center one warm summer day. Her preschool class has spent the week reading books about trips to the ocean and sea creatures. They have cut jellyfish from Jell-O, created seascapes using pizza rollers, and dabbled in sand art. The discussions in morning circles were related to sand, salt, and sea. During free time, the preschoolers played with rubber fish and sailed toy boats.

“We focus on play-based learning, with a different theme every week,” explains Allison Loyer, who has been on-site program director here for three years. (“Just when I thought I was semiretired, I got this offer,” she smiles.)

The center occupies a small wing in the downtown Y, with sister sites in Ypsilanti and at Glacier Hills. The all-day preschool has two classes, one for children between thirty and forty-two months of age, and one with children between forty-two months and five years. There’s also an after-school program for school children in kindergarten through fourth grade.

“We teach letters and numbers in a subtle way, ” Loyer says. “There are no worksheets or pressure to learn.” The older class explores three learning centers: literacy, math, and science. “We have wonderful teachers with great ideas. Our goal is to get children excited about learning and ready for school.”

As expected, Covid had a significant and lasting impact on protocols and numbers. Last year, the downtown center was closed for three months, although the center at Glacier Hills remained open to care for children of essential workers. Before the building reopened in June 2020, teachers in the children’s center disposed of all soft toys and dress-up clothes; divided supplies (including crayons, paints, chalk, Play-Doh, and pencils) into bags that were assigned to each student; and introduced new cleaning protocols.

Legos were already being washed twice a day, but now the playgrounds are sprayed every day, and a steamer like those airlines use cleans classrooms every night. “I spent–and spend–a lot of time walking around with spray bottles, cleaning door handles and everything else children touch,” Loyer says, “but the nature of our job has always meant that we have been very careful about hygiene and cleaning.”

Before Covid, the two preschool classes often shared playtime or craft projects, but during the lockdown months, classes were kept in separate pods to reduce exposures. Class sizes were reduced to ten in the younger group and twelve in the older group, and all students are now registered as full-time–“although parents don’t have to send their children five days a week,” Loyer says.

When schools were closed, they also offered learning labs for children from kindergarten through fourth grade to help parents struggling to find uninterrupted hours to work.

Despite the multitude of challenges, 2020-21 turned out to be “a pretty good year,” Loyer says. “I was pleasantly surprised. Not one person got sick. Masks were not an issue at all. Everyone was just happy to be back after the shutdown.”

The center continues to supervise elementary students in its after-school program for up to three hours. These children divide their time among the homework table, a quiet area for reading, occasional craft projects, scavenger hunts, science projects, or Bingo games. But fewer places will be available in fall 2021, and Loyer acknowledges that some families may have to look elsewhere for preschool and after-school programs.

The center offers scholarships to families who need them. “Our students are a reflection of Ann Arbor’s population, and many of them come from surrounding neighborhoods. Some even walk to the center,” Loyer says.

Gradually the center is returning to its new normal routine. Although the number of preschoolers will rise to forty this fall, the center won’t return to its pre-Covid numbers anytime soon–“but we’ll wait and see how things go after children are vaccinated,” Loyer says.