By Tim Nekritz
The Children’s Museum of Oswego closing from March to August was a challenge, because it took away peak time for field trips, as well as the ability to host birthday parties
When what you do is all about hands-on experience with a clientele who puts their hands on everything, how do you adjust to a global pandemic?
My kid has been wonderful at adapting to changes brought on by COVID-19, but one thing he kept asking this summer was when he could play at the Children’s Museum of Oswego again. Finally, in early August, the museum at the corner of West Bridge and First streets in Oswego reopened its doors with changes and an ambitious cleaning regimen, to the delight of local children and families.
One big change we discovered immediately is that you have to make a reservation online. The museum is only allowed to operate at reduced capacity, so they need to limit attendees. When we go, the museum is less crowded for this reason, but this can actually make for positive experiences, said Sondra Wendt, education and programming specialist for the museum.
“Families have a lot more space to play and enjoy,” Wendt said. “They actually get to have a more intimate experience because of it.”
The reduced capacity and extra cleaning “has also required us to divide the day into two play sessions, a morning session and an afternoon session, with a mid-day closure allowing us to do a deep cleaning,” said Kathryn Watson, CMOO’s education director who also took on the role of pandemic health and safety coordinator.
In this role, Watson became familiar with all the relevant guidelines and headed three days of staff training.
One of the things we notice in our visits is how attentive the staff is to cleaning. Play facilitator Sophia Cardinale said the cleaning is constant throughout the day, which means less interacting with families, but it’s ultimately about keeping them safe.
“It’s two and a half hours of cleaning during the morning play session, then cleaning and disinfecting between sessions, then another two and a half hours for the afternoon, then cleaning after we close for the day,” said Cardinale, who also is a senior childhood education major at SUNY Oswego.
Three to four staff members work at any given time. The front-desk staffer takes care of the downstairs, which is dominated by a huge water table — which has a specialized filtration system to keep it safe — while other staff members will clean the many toys, props and surfaces upstairs in spaces that include an art room, a variety of building stations, a play kitchen, a play dentist’s office, a garden and farm stand, a simulated fire truck, a toddler play place and much more.
Bleach solution used to clean throughout the day, and a strong cleaner and disinfectant during the mid-day break and after the museum closes. A back room that previously hosted birthday parties and thousands of Lego pieces now is set up like an assembly line for cleaning and sanitizing, drying and then disinfecting everything children play with.
“Our number one priority has been and always will be the health and safety of our visitors, staff and community. Strict cleaning and sanitizing regimens are the norm in our field, so we actually felt pretty well equipped to handle that aspect of reopening,” Watson said.
“We did train on our new cleaning and sanitizing procedures, but we spent the bulk of our time talking about how we maintain a high-quality visitor experience during a global pandemic,” Watson added. “We strategized ways to engage and support our visitors, we reviewed methods for encouraging mask wearing and we spoke extensively about what customer service looks like for us during this health crisis.”
The museum had to change some of its exhibits and find ways to divide the objects available to ensure enough pieces are in play (literally) for both 2.5-hour sessions. While this means that one might find fewer building blocks large and small, wooden planks, toy food, magnets and other playthings at any given time, the lower traffic and remaining wide variety of stations means families will always find plenty to enjoy.
Care and cooperation
What visitors don’t see is the staff giving the museum a top-to-bottom cleaning and sanitation after every play session. Watson emphasized the importance of the well-being of the staff, who she called “the heart and soul” of the museum.
“They are dedicated, professional and truly excellent at their jobs,” Watson said. “They are our most valuable resource and as anyone who has visited CMOO will tell you, they are just as much a part of the museum experience as the exhibits.”
“Our staff has been really excellent in going above and beyond,” Wendt added.
Wendt also offered praise and gratitude toward the families as well for being very conscientious about following guidelines, while still knowing how to get the most out of their visits.
“Like most public places, we have new rules regarding mask wearing and social distancing,” Watson said. “Maintaining social distance is a tricky thing in a children’s museum, but for the most part our visitors seem to be willing to regulate themselves. They understand that we would not be allowed to open without enforcing these guidelines.”
The museum closing from March to August was a challenge, as it would be for any not-for-profit or small business, because it took away peak time for field trips, as well as the ability to host birthday parties; it remains unclear when health guidelines will allow the latter to resume.
But overall, hearing the sounds of laughter (even behind masks) and seeing the wide eyes of children playing, learning and discovering can make everybody feel better. In addition to the many benefits children gain from open-ended play and using their imaginations, Watson noted, having a cornerstone of downtown Oswego alive again is good for the community.
“CMOO is essential to a thriving downtown Oswego,” Watson said. “All of the things that make up our historic downtown: independent small businesses, arts organizations and nonprofits have been hit hard these past few months. We are doing everything we can to ensure that the downtown Oswego this community has worked so hard to build makes it through the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Tim Nekritz is director of news and media for SUNY Oswego, where he spearheads telling the stories of the campus community.