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Esko child care workers suit up, show up during pandemic

Know an essential worker with a story to share? Email Melinda Lavine at mlavine@duluthnews.com or call 218-723-5346.

Kiana Asbell, left,  watches as Micah Rosendahl, 8 mos., plays with his musical alligator
Kiana Asbell, left, watches as Micah Rosendahl, 8 months, plays with his musical alligator while Lea Hassten, 10 months, bounces in her jumper Thursday morning, Feb. 17, 2022, at Mini Mos Child Care and Preschool in Esko.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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ESKO — Among the front-line workers that kept the Northland running the past two years, staff members at Mini Mos Child Care and Preschool have endured the changes at school and at home.

Working in the infant room, Kiana Asbell is on top of diaper changes, tummy time, bottle feedings, as well as the important engagement of the babies 6 weeks to 1 year old.

Preschool teacher and 20-year child care veteran Laura Williams has spent the last 5½ years at Mini Mos . She implements her lesson plans while “always remembering to allow them to be kids,” she said.

The pair took time to share their takeaways from the past two years.

Q: Working with kiddos all day, do you still experience “aw, cute!” moments?

KA: Infants are full of those “Aw, cute” moments. They change every day, and we get to see it firsthand. Those moments are what makes getting spit-up on, pooped on or all the “not very cute parts” worth it.

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My most favorite moments are when the kids connect with each other. When a baby looks at another baby and they smile and giggle at each other or play a game of peek-a-boo. It proves how important that human connection is for everyone.

LW: Everyday, many of them a day, actually. It never gets old hearing how I’m their best friend or how much they love you.

Q: What's your family life like? And did that change during COVID?

Laura Williams smiles as she gives a thumbs up while Carter Tandler, 3, climbs onto her
Laura Williams smiles as she gives a thumbs up while Carter Tandler, 3, climbs onto her during circle time Thursday morning, Feb. 17, 2022, at Mini Mos Child Care and Preschool in Esko.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

KA: I live with my husband and 6-year-old daughter. Before COVID, my daughter was also at Mini Mos while my husband was going to the College of St. Scholastica. My husband switched to online classes. We decided our daughter being home full-time was the safest option.

They took walks and played with chalks and spent tons of quality time together.

I remember feeling a little envious of the time they had with each other. When the days got more difficult because of COVID, they kept me going with pictures they sent from their bike rides and getting home to see my parking spot on the driveway filled with flowers, hearts and a label so all would know that spot was for me.

LW: I am married and we have a 10-year-old daughter. The biggest change for us was our daughter went into distance learning, so it was balancing that and work. Trying to make sure she stayed as normal as possible.

Q: Take us back to March 2020. What was the environment at Mini Mos?

KA: When COVID first hit, we had the option of being temporarily laid off. I chose to continue working. At the time, we thought this situation would only last a couple of weeks.

We went from maybe 20 staff to six, and we only had four babies each day. Our teacher-to-child ratio in the infant room is 1-to-4, so I spent a lot of the time with those babies.

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Kiana Asbell, right, gives Lea Hassten, 10 mos., a hug
Kiana Asbell, right, gives Lea Hassten, 10 months, a hug Thursday morning, Feb. 17, 2022, at Mini Mos Child Care and Preschool in Esko.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

I discovered if you’re outnumbered by a bunch of crying babies, the best way to calm them is to break out your best dance moves and sing a silly song.

LW: It was stressful because parents started to keep their kids home and we weren’t sure what was going to happen. I decided I needed to stay working.

We had school-age kids return because families had to stay working and the governor asked for centers to stay open if they were able to. So we were taking care of our kids, and making sure the school-age kids kept up with distance learning. It was pretty crazy.

Q: And at home?

KA: It was hard to not be home, but it was really cool to see my husband rocking the stay-at-home dad thing.

They were both so supportive of me. They would make dinner when I got home, and I have tons of ‘I love you, mommy’ crafts. We also became incredibly good at “Just Dance 2” on Wii, so that was a bonus.

Keeping them safe was my top priority. I would do what many did: wash my scrubs separately and shower as soon as I got home. Taking any kind of precaution I could to keep COVID out of my house.

LW: Stressful because none of us knew what was going to happen. Also because we were having to stay away from family and friends.

Laura Williams laughs as Bjorn Keppeler, 2, sits on her
Laura Williams laughs as Bjorn Keppeler, 2, sits on her lap during circle time Thursday morning, Feb. 17, 2022, at Mini Mos Child Care and Preschool in Esko.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

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Q: What helped you work through the emotions and tumult of the time?

KA: My family. It was also nice to have all the technology we have these days to stay connected with those I was unable to see. There is nothing like calling your mom on a tough day. We all needed those calls, whether we were stuck at home or trying to work through the days. Physically, we were all pretty isolated, but being able to call just to say “I love you” kind of helped bring us all together.

LW: Being able to go home to my family and focus on them.

Q: Did the events that were so acutely affecting us have an effect on the children that you noticed?

KA: Because so many parents were able to work from home, we only had the kids whose parents were considered essential. Our numbers were so low that we basically only needed one teacher per classroom. It was sad not seeing so many kiddos, and I think the kids felt that, too.

Us teachers got pretty inventive in making the day fun. (Cue the dance parties.)

LW: The hardest part was once the staff was masking, it was sometimes difficult for the kids to understand us or being able to see our facial expressions.

Q: Any pandemic-born trends in the child-care, early education industry?

KA: New pregnancies a few months in the shutdown. Since the pandemic started, we received so many pregnancy announcements, and we were able to fill our infant room with babies of families who already attended Mini Mos. That has not happened in the five years we have been open.

LW: A lot more cleaning and sanitizing, up until recently still wearing masks and daily temperature checks.

Q: Name a stand-out positive interaction at work during the past two years, and how did a moment like that impact you on the job?

KA: This profession is filled with so many positive interactions, and I have had so many moments at Mini Mos that impact me on and off the job. Each parent that brings their child trusts us to care for their entire world. And then, they trust me to watch their kids off the clock, too. I love each of these kids like my own.

Each day when they walk into the center, I am reminded how important all these moments are for the children. They are the next generation of doctors, artists, child care workers, and their future is limitless. So, I guess I can’t really answer that question, but I can say this job gives back every day. I have grown so much since I started. It’s also pretty cool to see the kids that started in my care that are now in kindergarten.

LW: People started to see the necessity of child care workers and how essential we are to everyone else’s ability to go to work.

Kiana Asbell grabs a musical alligator for Lea Hassten, 10 mos., to play with
Kiana Asbell grabs a musical alligator for Lea Hassten, 10 months, to play with Thursday morning, Feb. 17, 2022, at Mini Mos Child Care and Preschool in Esko as Micah Rosendahl, 8 months, watches from his car.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Q: As changes are occurring with omicron, any tips for other essential workers?

KA: Every time the world changes, we have to change, too. We need to be patient and realize a lot of this is out of our control. All we can do is adjust to whatever may come.

LW: Just keep going and taking it day by day.

Q: In what ways do you practice self-care, and has that changed during the COVID?

KA: Self-care for me isn’t about being alone or caring for just myself. It is getting together with the people I care about: my family, friends and coworkers.

Those few months, when everyone was apart and too scared to come together, were so isolating. I was happy to have my husband and daughter around, but it was hard not to see my parents, grandparents, friends with new children, and everyone who decided to stay home.

LW: Being aware of what was going on and taking the best care of myself and those around me.

Q: How can we support you and our other front-line heroes?

KA: We just all need to remember how important that human connection is. There’s not a whole lot that we can’t do when everyone works together. We spend so much time looking at the things that separate us, we need to focus more on what can bring us all together.

LW: Be aware of all the essential workers who worked through the pandemic because they didn’t have the option to change jobs or the opportunity to work remotely.

MORE BY MELINDA LAVINE
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“I don’t think anything comes out of sitting in a cell,” said Kathy Lionberger, division director at the Northeast Regional Corrections Center.

Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, mlavine@duluthnews.com.
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