June 21, 2021
Winter storm damages forced change of scenery
The Children’s Learning Center needed space, and Campus Recreation had it.
When Winter Storm Uri blasted Texas with arctic temperatures in late February, it caused widespread property damage from water outages and frozen pipes.
The University of Houston wasn’t immune to the winter wreckage: Not only did Housing and Residential Life do emergency repairs, but burst sprinklers and pipes shut down the Children’s Learning Center’s Wheeler location completely. The storm caused extensive water damage in the lobby and seven of nine classrooms to sheetrock, carpet, ceilings, cabinets and counters that took weeks to repair.
This could have left dozens of parents scrambling to find alternative childcare for their toddlers and preschoolers — that is until Campus Recreation offered a solution: Turn the space in the Rec Center that’s been taken off-line with COVID-19 restrictions into temporary classrooms.
Instead of being closed for weeks, the Children’s Learning Center simply moved the Wheeler site, reopening on March 9 in the Rec Center by turning racquetball and squash courts and unused multipurpose rooms into eight fully functional classrooms. The Wheeler infant classroom was temporarily housed at CLC’s Cameron location.
“What warms my heart is everyone coming together to make it happen,” said Jennifer Skopal, director of the Children’s Learning Center.
After Campus Recreation Executive Director Kim Clark made the offer, UH’s Facilities team did the heavy lifting by moving undamaged heavy furniture to the Recreation Center. Teachers then came in and moved other supplies they would need to teach, while Campus Recreation erected barricades to keep the new children’s space separated from other visitors.
The cooperation across UH has been uplifting, Skopal said. “It’s been really, really great,” she said. “Teachers were excited. They wanted to be open. They wanted to be here for the children.”
And the kids seem to have liked the temporary digs, as well. Repairs to the Wheeler location were completed by mid-April, so the children had a few weeks to enjoy having class in “the gym” before returning to their normal classrooms.
What did the kids think? Here are some selected quotes from children in the program:
“I like to watch the basketball players.”
“I like naptime at the gym.”
“I like that we decorated the room very beautiful.”
“I like dancing and playing kickball in the gym.”
“I like hearing the basketball players.”
Parents were also won over. Dr. Sandra Zalman, associate professor and program director of art history in the Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts, said she was impressed by how well the Children’s Learning Center pivoted to the new space. When she heard that the Wheeler location had been damaged, she said she was relieved to find out they’d be reopening in a temporary space.
Her child has attended the Children’s Learning Center since 2013, “and I’ve always been impressed with the level of care provided by the amazing teachers and staff. My kid is happy at the new location because he loves his teachers, but he still asks about his old classroom, which was, after all scaled to children and tailored specifically for their development and learning.”
The Children’s Learning Center, which has been open on UH’s campus for nearly 50 years, has grown over the years and expanded classrooms. Today, it has two locations on campus that can care for a combined 221 children. Teachers in the Center provide developmentally appropriate activities and a learning environment that fosters respect for cultural diversity. Students, staff, faculty and alumni can apply to enroll their children in the Center, which boasts a small teacher to student ratio, and a Spanish language immersion program.
“The University daycare offers the highest quality care to the children of the campus community, and is foundational to the mission of the University, making it possible for UH parents to conduct their research, attend their classes, and achieve excellence,” Zalman said. “You may have seen the statistics about how many women have left the workforce as a result of the increased pressures of caring for children during the pandemic. Having a functioning daycare then becomes an equity issue that allows working parents the time and space to do their jobs. Meanwhile, early childhood education and care remains an underpaid field, despite being the most challenging and valuable work of all.”
Clark said offering the unused space for such an important part of the University was an easy decision. Because of the pandemic, she said, Campus Recreation has been operating its facilities at a reduced capacity for safety reasons. “It has been a tough year for everyone between the pandemic, families having to teach kids at home, having limited childcare options and working remotely. We were simply happy to be able to offer a possible solution to one of our campus partners,” Clark said. “We hope this helped relieve a little stress for those families who count on the Center.”
Skopal said their licensing representative from the Department of Texas Health and Human Services officially approved the temporary space. Skopal and UH followed strict licensing rules in setting up the temporary classrooms, which spells out everything from child accessible handwashing stations and toilets to classroom square footage.
Zalman said the damage to the Wheeler location really highlights the importance of the Children’s Learning Center to the UH community. “Not only is it important for raising the next generation of Cougars, it is vital to the University’s Mission,” she said. “Without the Center functioning, faculty, staff, students and alums who are parents simply cannot undertake the work necessary to achieving the University’s Research 1 goals.”
Parents were not required to bring their children to the temporary space, Skopal said. All families had the option of not returning until the Center was fully operational in its permanent location.
But when the Wheeler Center reopened on March 9, after being closed for three weeks, teachers welcomed 51 children back into the classrooms.
“Seeing the joy on the parent’s and children’s faces this morning at drop-off made this process all worthwhile,” she said. “Everyone settled in nicely. The Campus Recreation Center staff have been so welcoming and accommodating to our needs. I cannot thank them enough!”