The challenges of child care in the age of COVID-19

For the first time in months, young children toddled through the door at Hug Me Tight Childlife Center on Monday. They faced a few changes.

Two-year-old Titan Yates arrived around 8:30 a.m. His mother Ty logged him into the center’s computer system by using her phone to scan a QR code posted near the entrance. Next, Titan watched anxiously as a teacher at the door used an infrared thermometer to take his temperature. Another teacher then ushered Titan into a classroom and helped him wash his hands at a sink. Only then could Titan sit at a table and munch Cheerios with a few friends.

Hug Me Tight’s newly implemented safety precautions are a sign that, for child care centers, reopening isn’t as simple as just throwing open the doors and inviting children and families back in.

Titan Yates, 2, watches while his mother Ty gets her temperature taken during the reopening of Hug Me Tight Child Life Center.

Closed since mid-March as part of measures taken to slow the spread of COVID-19, child care providers must navigate a host of financial, logistical and staffing issues.

“It’s going to be a significant challenge. … I want to stay in business. I want to,” said Wanda Franklin, executive director of the center in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

Last week, in preparation for reopening, her staff descended on Hug Me Tight’s classrooms, painted a cheerful blue, to disinfect bright red chairs, plastic toys and tables the children will soon occupy.

Like many centers, Hug Me Tight has lost tens of thousands of dollars in parent co-pays during the months it was closed. It likely will have decreased enrollment, at least initially, due to parents who are hesitant to return their children to a group setting. Some staff members are older than age 60, and some have underlying health conditions. The facility will have to operate under new social-distancing and cleaning rules that will require additional staff to serve the same number of children as attended previously.

Ms. Franklin also is sensitive to the need to balance safety with all other concerns. While large parts of the economy are reopening, the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing.

Wanda Franklin, executive director at Hug Me Tight Child Life Center.

“Those that have really suffered tremendous loss [to COVID-19] are primarily of African American descent. We are very concerned about this thing. It is evident that disproportionately, we are affected. I want to be careful; I am being very cautious,” she said.

“I want to move forward, but I want to be as pro-health as possible.”

But fewer children, more staff and more cleaning will squeeze what was already a fragile business model.

Ask teacher Geneva Day if she’s ready to get back into the classroom at Hug Me Tight and you’ll get a quick answer.
“Am I excited? Yes, I am,” she said. “The work gives me a sense of stability and it makes me feel good because I’m doing something to give back. It’s about community involvement and that’s always a first with me. I got into child care in order to support children, to give them what they need, and to support the families as much as I can, in order for the community to survive.”
But returning to work while the coronavirus continues to ravage a number of states can create anxiety among staff. “This is a very scary situation,” said Ms. Day, who gives her age as “fifty-plus.”
“COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate. It’s all across the world. You have to really be careful.”
Her anxiety has been somewhat lessened “because our director has been in touch with us all along, and we were able to talk, and discuss our fears and brainstorm what we can do about it. That helps a lot.”

Financial challenges

Last month, state officials announced they would distribute about $51 million in federal aid to Pennsylvania child care providers. Ms. Franklin estimates that her center would receive about $6,000. But Hug Me Tight has lost about $30,0000 in the months it has been closed.

“Realistically, additional support is needed from the state from a financial aspect,” she said.

The state has said it will distribute some additional federal funds following the completion of a study. It also has continued to distribute subsidy payments for its Child Care Works program.

Ms. Franklin isn’t the only one who is concerned.

By late March, child care advocates and centers were sounding the alarm — without significant financial help, many providers would not reopen after the pandemic due to the loss of parent payments.

By the end of this week, about 84% of the county’s centers will have reopened, said Wendy Etheridge Smith, director of the Allegheny County Early Learning Resource Center, though many are not operating at full capacity.

It is unclear how long some providers can operate and still be viable if they aren’t at full capacity, said Cara Ciminillo, executive director of advocacy group Trying Together. The organization has pushed state officials to quickly distribute all available federal funds to child care providers.

As of earlier this month, 24 providers statewide had notified Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services of plans to permanently close.

Even prior to the pandemic, Allegheny County had a shortage of high-quality programs such as Hug Me Tight. The program is designated a four-star center, the highest quality rating given by the state.

There were approximately 44,650 children under age 5 in Allegheny County in need of care, with a provider capacity of about 35,000, according to a study completed last fall. Of those, only about 42% — slightly over 15,000 children — were in a program rated by the state as high-quality.

Kids who attend high-quality programs (those given a three- or four-star rating by the state) have better cognitive development, better school attendance, and many more long-lasting advantages, according to the report, which called for the county to dedicate funds to expand access to early learning, as well as after-school programs for older children.

A young woman once approached Tina Robinson and asked, “Is your name Tina?”
Yes, replied Ms.Robinson, 62, now assistant director of Hug Me Tight.
“I remember you,” the young woman said. “I remember when you used to clean me up and do my hair. I want you to know I remember everything you said to me.”
The two met years ago, when the woman was a young child. “I just took her home and spent time with her because her home life was horrific,” Ms. Robinson said. Now the young woman was a nurse.
“I want you to know, I’m not trifling,” she told Ms. Robinson. “I have a husband. I have two beautiful daughters and my house is clean.”
Ms. Robinson wept. “That told me I’m doing a good job and this is where the good Lord wanted me.”

The pandemic hurt what was an already-stressed child care system.

Child care is inherently costly because of the required ratios of adults to young children, said Elliot Haspel, author of “Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It.”

Where one elementary school teacher might have as many as 25 children in a classroom, infants and toddlers have one teacher for every four to six children.

Additionally, “there’s very little public money flowing into child care centers. As a result, child care centers have no choice but to turn to parent fees,” Mr. Haspel said.

Child care is often very costly to parents and families, but low-paying for the teachers who provide care.

Add to that pandemic-induced, months-long closures; new guidelines in place that require more cleaning and additional staff (driving up costs); and parents who might be hesitant to put their children in care (driving down enrollments and revenue).

If COVID-19 was an earthquake, the coming difficulties to operating child care programs will be aftershocks, Mr. Haspell said.

“In order to stay solvent, programs have to stay very, very close to full enrollment,” which will be much harder to do now, he said.

“All of that is creating an enormous amount of stress on a system that really can’t take it.”

“If you catch a kid young, you can instill some of your goodness and love into them,” said Hug Me Tight teaching assistant Terry Cokley, 35. Some of his students have grown into young adults and still, they affectionately call him Mr. T. “Once you build that type of relationship, you know you did something good. You affected that one person and his life. And who knows? He might affect somebody else with something that you taught him. Hopefully, it just trickles down. A Domino effect.”

A new normal

Still, Ms. Franklin is pushing forward.

In the weeks before reopening, she and her staff at Hug Me Tight struggled to envision the reality of caring for children in the age of COVID-19 under guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ms. Franklin and a half-dozen teachers gathered in an office in late May and, with masks muffling their voices, pondered questions faced by child care workers throughout Western Pennsylvania.

What if a young child is crying and inconsolable or falls and scrapes a knee? Do you give the child a hug?

“You can’t be hugging right now,” Ms. Franklin instructed. “We have to social-distance according to the CDC guidelines, which we are going to be following to the ‘T.’ ”

“These are kids, we’re going to have incidents where they’re falling,” said Tina Robinson, the center’s assistant director.

“I understand that, but we’re adhering to the CDC guidelines,” Ms. Franklin replied.

How do you show a child love when you can’t physically hold them?

“Eye contact,” teaching assistant Marquette Reynolds advised. “And you come down to their level.”

Another method of providing comfort, Ms. Reynolds later suggested, was by clasping a child’s hands.

The discussion continued a week later, during a formal staff meeting. By then, Ms. Franklin had worked out a number of issues that would help ensure the safety of children and staff.

All children will enter through one side door, she said, and will be assigned a QR bar code that will be scanned upon entering and leaving. Parents will not be allowed inside the building. Two teachers will be assigned to each classroom — enough staff to keep up with sanitizing surfaces and toys.

“And on top of that, everybody’s gonna have to wash hands. Hourly,” Ms. Franklin said.

The country isn’t ready to reopen, says Marquette Reynolds, a teaching assistant at Hug Me Tight. The virus is still out there, wreaking its havoc. She’s seen it.
“I know two people who have passed away from it,” she said. “I know two people who have recovered from it.”
But she realizes that, with the economy now in a recession, politicians face pressure to ease restrictions so people can get back to work. Many workers will need child care. So last week, Ms. Reynolds, 49, joined her coworkers as they sprayed and wiped toys and surfaces in classrooms soon to be occupied by energetic children.
“We’re clearing every nook and cranny of these rooms,” she said. “We’ll sterilize whatever the children use.” In addition, children will eat and nap in small groups.
And Ms. Reynolds won’t be hugging the children anytime soon. It’ll be difficult.
“As much as we like to squeeze the babies and comfort them, we’ll have to find another way,” said Ms. Reynolds, who holds a second job as a certified nursing assistant at the Southwest Veterans’ Center on Highland Drive. “Holding hands tightly. A peck on the back of the head. Even at my other job, it’s hard for me not to go in for a squeeze. Those are my guys, those are my heroes.”

Persuading children to wash up presents another challenge, said Donna Jackson, 62, who teaches 2-year-olds.

“We’ll make it fun by using songs,” she said. “Kids like to be entertained at all times. So if you make it fun, they’ll tolerate it.”

Ms. Jackson said teachers must be vigilant in discouraging children from putting toys in their mouths. She plans to limit the number of toys available and minimize the number of children playing in certain areas.

One mile east of the center, on Webster Avenue in the Hill District, Tamaira Binion and her 2-year-old son, Jann Council Jr., are looking forward to the child care center’s reopening.

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Needing child care

Tamaira Binion, 37, and son Jann Council Jr., 2, at the family’s Hill District home.

For the past few months, Ms. Binion, 37, has balanced her parental duties with work, which she conducts remotely from a desk on the first floor of her home. Her husband, Jann, owns a small grocery store in Northview Heights and has worked through the shutdown, so Ms. Binion is at home alone with her son most of the day. It has been tough on both mother and child.

Until the COVID-19 shutdown, Jann Jr. spent up to nine hours a day at Hug Me Tight. Ms. Binion plans to ease him back into the program. He’ll start Monday, spending four to six hours there.

“My family is very blessed; we still have jobs,” said Ms. Binion, assistant director of alumni relations at Carnegie Mellon University. “We’re not struggling financially. But I do feel we are struggling mentally. I’ve had a few meltdowns. I’ve broken down and cried because my whole day revolves around a 2-year-old. There’s no time for myself, to remind myself I’m human, too.”

While she works, Jann plays nearby, sometimes pushing a toy firetruck across the floor or sitting at a small desk next to his mother. On occasion, Ms. Binion pauses her work to change his diaper.

“I can’t be on five Zoom calls a day,” she said. “I’ll have a very angry toddler attached to me. I’ve had calls where he broke down crying and screaming and I had to say, ‘I can’t do this right now.’ He’s my number one priority and my job is very understanding of that.”

Jann Jr. yearns to see his friends and teachers again, Ms. Binion said. Returning to Hug Me Tight for a few hours each day will allow him to reconnect and give Ms. Binion some uninterrupted work time.

“Some parents are not comfortable sending their kids back, but my son … I still feel like he needs more of a social environment,” Ms. Binion said. “He’s struggling. It’s hard. You’ve just turned their whole world upside down [with the shutdown].”

To keep her son engaged, Ms. Binion said, she and Jann Jr. have been going on walks through the neighborhood, cooking and taking part in a daily educational activity like working with flash cards or completing art projects.

“We’re all just trying to get through it,” she said, “and if everyone gives themselves a little bit of grace, we’ll be OK.”

For help finding child care in Allegheny County, call the local Pennsylvania Department of Human Services’ Early Learning Resource Centers at 412-350-3577 or visit https://tryingtogether.org/find-child-care/

Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909. Steve Mellon: smellon@post-gazette.com.

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