Washington state officials are urging child care providers and after-school programs to stay open amid statewide school closures prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Representatives for child care centers statewide and Spokane-area in-home child care facilities said they had not heard of any providers planning to close their doors. But they also pointed out the incongruity in the state’s request given a lack of investment in early learning and recent regulations that shuttered some in-home caretakers.
In a statement Saturday, the Department of Children, Youth and Families said it’s working “in lockstep” with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to expand child care resources to serve kids who would normally be in school.
The department is also exploring options related to flexibility around licensing regulations, subsidy incentives, and recruiting and deploying workers to support capacity needs and coordinating transportation with school districts.
The department posted a YouTube video with guidance for providers on Friday after the number of people who joined an afternoon webinar crashed the streaming service. Most of the recommendations on handling illness defer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state Department of Health and local public health departments.
“We have a big heart and we really want to make sure that we’re serving the community. And a lot of times we put ourselves aside to serve the community,” said Washington Childcare Centers Association President Luc Jasmin III, who owns Parkview Early Learning Center in Spokane. “The community needs to remember this moment and value us.”
Parkview Early Learning Center has been closing 30 minutes early each day to ensure the staff has time to complete additional cleaning beyond the state’s already stringent mandates, Jasmin said. Employees, who are screened for illness before starting work, are taking the temperatures of children in the parking lot before they enter the facility. Jasmin said he’s widely shared public health information with parents.
“We’re just trying to fill the need,” Jasmin said.
Debbie Thurber, owner of All Children of the World in Spokane Valley and president of the Eastern Washington Family Child Care Association, said local providers she knows, along with her facility, plan to stay open.
State officials “want to put it on our shoulders to stay open after they pretty much pummeled us with all these rules and regulations,” Thurber said. “There are several providers who have (recently) closed their doors because of licensing regulations.”
When other in-home providers call her for advice about staying open, Thurber said she tells them, “I’m remaining open. You’re here for the kids.”
Thurber said some providers, while still worried about ongoing financial stability, are concerned about their physical health, especially among older caretakers. She said she doesn’t have the ability to screen kids before they enter their home because of DCYF’s requirement for her to be in the same room as the other children. Once inside, she takes their temperatures and looks for signs of illness.
Thurber has implemented additional cleaning of surfaces whenever parents or children enter or leave her home, as well as when anyone uses the bathroom. But because of the cleaning supplies shortage, she’s started to clean with rubbing alcohol as an alternative.
“The need that I have now are the older siblings of the current children I have in care,” said Thurber, who normally has six children but has capacity for 12.
Thurber said she has reached out to DCYF about obtaining a waiver to increase her capacity after officials discussed the possibility of allowing child care facilities to enroll more children without necessarily hiring more staff. She said she will ask to care for 18 children because she has two staff members who can help.
Jasmin said he’ll focus on ensuring the safety of the 99 children he has capacity for before considering taking in additional kids. He said some of his employees who have health concerns plan to stay away from the center amid the outbreak and he hopes the state will maintain early learning subsidies to pay his staff.
Shannon and Tim Benn, who own Little Precious One’s Childcare in northeast Spokane, already planned to shutter at the end of March due to competition with free child care services this summer. Public schools and churches offering temporary care during the COVID-19 outbreak might make that closure more immediate.
“You can’t compete with free,” Tim Benn said. “I foresee a lot of child cares across Washington closing or going bankrupt this year.”
Monica Bertucci, executive director at Blueprints for Learning, which has a capacity for nearly 30 kids, said her center plans to stay open unless officials ask it to close or it has a compelling internal reason to do so.
“I think our community feels safe and likes that we’re doing what we need to be doing,” Bertucci said. “People are just watching and waiting, knowing it is a day-by-day situation and that we are going to have to remain flexible.”
Bertucci said staff members are closely monitoring children for signs of illness and doing additional cleaning. No parents have raised concerns about the center’s practices, she said.
“It’s important to us to continue serving our kids and families as long as we’re allowed to and as long as it’s safe to do so,” Bertucci said.
As child care providers step up amid the outbreak, Herzog Family Center owner and child care advocate Brian Trimble said he’s optimistic the outbreak will shine a light on the need for the state to increase funding for early learning.
“We’re important all the time, and we’re really important when the community needs us,” said Trimble, noting the shortage of child care workers and how many of them are paid at minimum wage.
Years ago, local child care facilities would have had the capacity to handle the current emergency, said Trimble, but “nobody can afford to run this business anymore.” He said he expects more providers to close during the outbreak.
Trimble’s center is already at capacity with 68 children. He said he’s concerned about the state potentially relaxing the rules regarding capacity and staff-to-child ratios.
“It’s only in (the state’s) best interest and it has little to do with our health and safety,” Trimble said.
Many providers are still confident they will be able to weather the storm.
“We really need to make sure we’re sticking together, just following the resources that are out there,” Jasmin said. “I think that’s the best we can do.”
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