The news that a toddler who had been cared for at a Spokane child care center tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month made at least one other center director feel sick to her stomach – and it worried many more.
“We’re all living in this world where this virus exists and it’s not going away,” Monica Bertucci, executive director of Blueprints for Learning, told The Spokesman-Review. “We will be dealing with it. And we just have do the best we can.”
Imagining a symptomless child with the novel coronavirus pass through rigorous temperature checks and symptom screenings is just one part of a new, uncomfortable reality for child care providers as they grapple with how to adapt both physically and financially to the novel coronavirus pandemic within an already-broken system.
So far, the state health department has recorded four COVID-19 outbreaks in Washington related to child care facilities. But that may be an underestimate due to a lack of testing and contact tracing.
The case in Spokane at Just Imagine Child Care Center was linked to one other positive test, according to the Spokane Regional Health District. Health officials will not say whether that person is a family member but pointed to strict safety measures for preventing widespread transmission at the facility.
The state Department of Children, Youth and Families began doling out grant funding about two weeks ago to thousands of child care providers that have remained open statewide, including about 155 Spokane providers who received about $1.3 million in total.
But the one-time grants – ranging from $6,500 to $14,000 per provider, depending on the size of their operation – is likely a drop in the bucket for most.
Many of the providers who have stayed open through the pandemic have faced declining enrollment, often meaning fewer dollars contributing to overhead costs.
Meanwhile, the child care providers that already closed can’t apply for state grant funding. In Spokane, that was about 27% of providers, or nearly 80 businesses, as of Wednesday, according to DCYF.
About 22% of child care providers statewide, or about 1,200 businesses, were closed on Wednesday.
Out of 2,500 Washington child care providers who responded to a recent survey, approximately 41% said they were at risk of permanent closure, mainly due to the financial stress of the pandemic, according to Child Care Aware of Washington.
The same survey also found just 49 of those respondents received federal economic disaster loans and 202 received federal Paycheck Protection Program loans.
Obtaining personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, in addition to regular cleaning supplies and hand sanitizers, has become a struggle, and providers do not have access to the state’s stock of supplies.
As more people head back to work, experts are concerned there may not be enough child care to go around. Many providers were already at or near capacity for child care before the wave of pandemic closures.
And the potential for a COVID-19 outbreak in a child care facility, along with the subsequent tracing of virus exposures, poses another potential challenge.
“Before this even started we had a crisis with child care,” said Lee Williams, executive director of Community-Minded Enterprises, which runs the nonprofit Child Care Aware of Eastern Washington. “It was not a stable business plan. (Providers) were not taking in enough revenue to keep up with rising expenses.”
“A lot of them that have closed (during the pandemic), it just wasn’t worthwhile for them to stay open,” Williams said.
Until about two weeks ago, Blueprints for Learning, which runs the Community Building Children’s Center downtown, was counted among Spokane’s temporary closures.
But that wasn’t initially the plan, said Bertucci, the Blueprints for Learning executive director. Things changed when schools across the state closed in mid-March.
“We remained open, but our attendance really dropped,” said Bertucci.
An average day at that point was one toddler and a few preschoolers in attendance, compared to the center’s regular capacity for nine toddlers and 20 preschoolers.
A week later, as concerns about community transmission grew and daily attendance became too difficult to anticipate, the center closed. Then came Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order.
Still, the closure was only supposed to last through mid-April, Bertucci said.
During the closure, Blueprints for Learning reduced tuition by 50%, which families understood was an investment in keeping the center open, according to Bertucci. Staff also continued to hold daily music classes with families online.
The center had to temporarily furlough its staff and reduce hours, Bertucci said. Payroll Protection Program loan funds arrived at the beginning of May.
Bertucci said increased testing, contact tracing and widespread masking measures helped the center feel confident about reopening earlier this month, as well as knowing there also was a smaller chance of having a case in a child.
“We still don’t know everything now, but we know quite a bit more than we did several weeks ago,” Bertucci said.
Attendance climbed back toward regular levels upon reopening, with the toddler room at half capacity and the preschool about 85% full with regular students and school-aged siblings. Some families who aren’t attending still pay tuition to hold their child’s spot in the program.
Bertucci said the center adopted an electronic attendance system for parents to use curbside via cellphones, installed touchless faucets and soap dispensers, and rearranged classrooms for smaller group sizes. All staff members are wearing masks.
Before reopening, Bertucci said staff spent two days allowing parents to speak with the child care program director, receive one-on-one tours through the rearranged facility and share how their children had been coping at home during the pandemic.
“That’s a big transition to be back together,” Bertucci said. “It really provided time to have those conversations and address everybody’s concerns.”
Children are spending more time outside to limit the time they are in close quarters with one another, Bertucci said. Staff have also taken cleaning “up another notch.”
“And we are trusting our community of families to keep their bubbles (of contact) really small because they just connected their bubbles to a lot more families,” Bertucci said.
“It’s uncomfortable, but it comes down to doing the best we can,” she added later.
As a small center, Blueprints for Learning qualifies for $6,500 in state grant funding, which Bertucci said could be used to offer financial relief to families and staff. In case of further economic challenges, the funds could be used just to help the center break even.
“There is still an active pandemic,” Bertucci said about ongoing financial uncertainties.
Parkview Early Learning Center in north Spokane, which is run by Luc Jasmin III, never closed its doors during the pandemic.
But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t faced many challenges of its own.
Parkview’s normal capacity is about 115 kids, but lately closer to a quarter of them have shown up to the center, according to Jasmin.
And unlike Blueprints for Learning, Parkview largely serves families who use government subsidies for child care. So when those children don’t attend, that revenue is lost.
Funds from the state’s grant program will cover about 15% of the center’s payroll for a month, which runs about $100,000, according to Jasmin.
The center closes 30 minutes early each day for extra cleaning and all rooms in the facility are operating at half capacity, Jasmin said. The majority of the center’s employees has remained on the payroll by taking on cleanings tasks and doing professional development trainings.
Staff recently began delivering meals to families, which garners additional government subsidy funding for the center, according to Jasmin.
But the facility has been unable to provide all staff with reusable masks and scrubs as hoped, Jasmin said. That leaves teachers without protection from kids who are beginning to act more aggressively, and sometimes physically, toward teachers due to the added pressures of the pandemic.
“These kids are feeling it. The behaviors are escalating,” Jasmin said. “We are serving kids that were dealing with a lot already.”
The news of a COVID-19 case in a Spokane child care center worried staff and families at Parkview, as well as underscored the importance of protecting the child care work force. He laughed at the thought of asking young children to adhere to strict social distancing.
“This is the reality,” Jasmin said. “Unfortunately they were the one, but any of us could have been in that situation.”
The state health department believes contacts in child care facilities should be well documented and easily shared with public health agencies in light of a confirmed case, according to Jessica Baggett, a state health department public information officer.
But the Spokane Regional Health District still sees the potential challenges in contact tracing at child care providers, as well as schools.
“If it’s limited to a classroom, then generally a whole center won’t be affected,” Anna Halloran, a SRHD epidemiologist told reporters during a May 13 news conference. “But if there’s any kind of mixing or exchange between staff, it becomes more tricky.”
Going back to work
As of last Friday, Spokane County had at least 1,250 child care vacancies, according to Child Care Aware of Washington. That number was nearly 23,000 for the entire state.
But with more people returning to their workplaces and fewer providers open to take in their kids, experts worry about the looming lack of child care. Many Spokane providers had months-long waiting lists before the pandemic.
“How are we going to open up if we don’t think about those child cares that are closed down?” Jasmin said.
“It’s a dilemma as we’re heading into Phase 2,” said Williams, the Child Care Aware of Eastern Washington director.
Nicole Rose, director of eligibility and provider supports for DCYF, said the state is supporting providers by informing them of health guidelines and pointing them toward resources, such as county emergency management departments for protective equipment.
The state also readjusted state subsidies to increase the amount of money going directly to providers, Rose said. And more providers have continued to apply for grant funding.
Health and education officials are meeting multiple times a month to discuss K-12 education and early learning as the economy reopens, according to Rose.
“We need to understand in the new normal what supply and demand looks like,” Rose said.
Part of that is learning what families need to feel safe sending their kids to child care and determining what providers need to feel comfortable accepting children.
Bertucci, the Blue Prints for Learning director, said the child care business model may change if more people work from home permanently. Regardless, she said, child care employees need higher wages for the work they do and education required of them.
Williams said Child Care Aware of Eastern Washington is examining different business models for child care, such as a system for employers to contribute to child care or provide a space for child care at the workplace.
Recent modeling suggests costs will increase to provide child care at a center or in a home with social distancing guidelines, according to Rose.
“It just highlights, how do we – as we rebuild the system – bring it back better?” Rose said.
At the federal level, Sen. Patty Murray introduced legislation last week to create a $50 billion Child Care Stabilization Fund that would offer grant funding to providers.
“For a long while I think we’re going to need continued stimulus money,” Williams said.
Recent estimates from the National Women’s Law Center showed child care providers in the U.S. need an additional $9.6 billion in funding each month to sustain operations and support closed providers.
“We keep on hearing from officials that they care about child care,” said Jasmin, who also is president of the Washington Childcare Centers Association. “This is the time. It supports everything.”
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