Preschools, day cares faced difficult decisions to close, now plan to reopen amid new challenges
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Every parent, every family and every child care provider in Routt County has faced extraordinary challenges over the past several months.
For schools and school-based preschools, the decision was clear — they were mandated by the state to close.
For independent preschools and child care centers, the decisions to close or stay open came amid mixed messaging, murky guidelines and heart-wrenching choices for both providers and families.
Around mid-March, the majority of preschools and day cares in Routt County saw a dramatic drop in enrollment. Many parents had become unemployed — while many others continued working from home.
In many households, parents who both continued to work were able to stagger their schedules and split the child care duties.
Many turned to neighbors, family, friends and babysitters to help out.
Parents who needed to work on location and didn’t have alternatives struggled to find options, and options which felt safe — which felt right — trying to balance the needs of their child and the demands of their jobs with the health of their families and the community as a whole.
Working from home can be a “double-edged sword,” described Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton and mother of a 4-year-old. On one hand, parents have precious extra time with their kids, she described. On the other, they can’t give their kids their full attention.
“It’s important to understand the stress of working parents with young children,” said Megan Moore-Kemp, parent to a 10- and 11-year-old and chairwoman of the Routt County Economic Development Council. “The level of stress is tremendous right now.”
Now as more parents are going back to work and leaving the house, more child care centers are preparing to reopen, though at a reduced capacity and with a host of new protocols.
But the guidelines facing them are not all exactly practical in terms of keeping a mask on a 3-year-old or telling 4-year-olds to social distance.
And there are things like figuring out how to sanitize an entire playground between different groups. And whether they can survive financially at reduced capacities.
“It’s really, really hard to socially distance toddlers,” said Kim Martin, director of Young Tracks Preschool and Child Care Center.
For families with older children who have worked out their distance learning system up until now, now face a summer of uncertainty — which is getting particularly challenging with parents going back to work but unable to make commitments to their employers because they have no idea what camps or activities in which their children will be able to participate.
“I feel it cannot be underestimated how much anxiety families have about coming months and for their children and how that’s going to work,” Moore-Kemp said. “We can’t talk about reopening the economy without talking about child care.”
At first, working full time from home with a toddler seems like a gift.
More time with the little one — at this 18 month age when each moment, each hour is full of new joys, discoveries, developments and learning experiences — is something most working parents cherish.
And we get help from husbands and friends to block off some time of uninterrupted work. Naps can also allow for a brief window.
But after weeks and weeks of trying to work and be a mom, often at the same time — it wears on you.
The instances that stick out most vividly in my highest anxiety moments are when I am on a deadline — I am past my deadline — and I just need one more hour to get my work done.
But my daughter has been amusing herself for a while, and she’s already eaten, and she’s getting tired, and she just wants to sit on my lap and have me read her a book. And I can’t. I have to tell her no. And she cries, and doesn’t understand why I care more about staring at a computer screen than reading her Go Dog Go.
Those moments tore my heart apart. I wasn’t succeeding as a mother and I wasn’t succeeding as a reporter. And if I yelled at her or acted stern, I felt even worse.
I grew desperate for her to watch a cartoon before she’s at an age where she even cares about cartoons.
I let her take every single thing off the dining room table/ repurposed desk and put it on the floor it until she eventually slipped off the bench that goes around the table and fell underneath. Just like I knew was eventually going to happen. Because I needed 20 more minutes.
And what tore my heart even more was making the decision to pull her out of day care, even when it was open, because I can do my work from home.
She had just started going again, and she loved it. She thrived. She loved being around other kids. She loved the teachers and the stimulation.
And then I faced the agonizing decisions of whether to let her be around my older friends and families, from whom I desperately needed help, but whom I did not want to risk.
And now that things appear to be opening up, I face the decision of putting her back into daycare, but still feeling apprehension at exposing her to a new group of people.
While my daughter’s health is of the utmost importance to me, my fear centered on her being a vector, and carrying that to someone who was vulnerable.
I don’t think that fear is going away any time soon.
But just as with opening businesses and other sectors of the economy, we are all weighing the risks. We are all trying to figure out what is the right thing to do — for us personally, for our children, and for our community.
To all the parents who have had their share of moments of anxiety, agony and desperation as they work to make decisions, I feel you.
I am still in agony, and I don’t know that the decisions are getting significantly easier.
I am going to return my little one to daycare soon for two days a week. And I don’t know if this is the right or wrong decision. I don’t know if I do this, if I will need to prevent her from being around my more vulnerable friends and family.
But I do know that right now, those millions of nuero connectors are forming in her brain. And I know that 90 to 95 percent of brain development occurs before kindergarten. And I know the social-emotional skills she develops now set the stage for the rest of her life.
I know this is good for her. And I know need the help — to handle two jobs and stay sane. And I know the child care centers in this valley are phenomenal and will do everything possible to keep my kid happy, learning, and safe.
“It’s a massive challenge,” said Kara Stoller, chief executive officer of the Steamboat Springs Chamber.
Stoller notes Routt County has a higher than average number of households with two working parents.
Throughout this pandemic process, early learning centers have remained in a category unlike any other business.
Not only were child care centers not required to close when schools did, they were actively encouraged by the state and federal government to stay open.
A number of at-home providers have continued to care for children throughout.
Heritage Park Preschool, Young Tracks, Discovery Learning Center and Holy Name Preschool remained in close contact and made the decision to close in March.
“The decision to shut down was very difficult,” said Tami Havener, director at Discovery Learning Center. “A week prior, I said to parents we would still be open.”
On March 16, Havener’s center had about eight kids out of the normal 48. She spoke with the leaders at the other centers in town and consulted with public health officials. Other centers also were seeing a dramatic decrease, Havener said.
On the day before she informed her families they were closing, Martin said she changed her mind four times.
And, during these crucial days, Havener pointed to an email she received from the Office of Early Childhood Education “saying we all should stay open.”
This was after schools were closed.
“It felt like a double standard,” she said. “Why are private preschools safe but not public preschools? It felt like an economic decision and one not being driven by what is best for children or best for early childhood teachers.”
Martin said she interpreted not closing early learning centers “as a slap in the face.”
‘We are a school’
“Once again early childhood is not looked at as a profession — we are looked at as babysitters,” Martin said. “The truth is, we are a school and should be shown the same respect as schools.”
It also bothered Martin that governing officials expected early childhood teachers — but not other public school teachers to put themselves and their families risk.
At Grandkids Child Care Center, which largely serves hospital employees, they first asked families to keep their kids home if they could, said Director Jessica Carroll. The majority could, she said, and even though their parents worked at the hospital, with so many medical procedures being postponed, the staffing demands were not as high.
Once they saw they were only serving three or four kids, “We decided the risk did not outweigh the benefit,” Carroll said, and they closed down.
Grandkids reopened May 11 at half capacity. The staff went through the state and federal guidelines with a fine-toothed comb, she described, prior to reopening. They did a Zoom call with the kids, explaining why they were going to be asked to wear masks. They asked families to practice wearing masks.
They nap and eat lunch 6 feet apart, and rotate to activity stations, she said.
Little Lambs Daycare in Phippsburg never closed.
“We stayed open because our mission — and our whole reason why we created this center and why all the wonderful teachers work here — is to support families in the community,” said owner Kasey O’Halloran. “And we are so proud of ourselves and how well we’ve done in following every CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and CDPHE )Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) guidelines.”
They sanitize toys multiple times a day and do a deep clean every night. They check kid and staff temperatures upon arrival. They limit who can enter the building, among other precautions.
No child or family member of the children ever contracted the virus, O’Halloran said.
Discovery, Young Tracks and Little Lambs received a PPP loan. They also received funding from the state and county to pay for the slots for families qualifying for the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program program, even if those kids didn’t attend.
Melton noted these programs have played a significant role in helping keep centers afloat.
None of the centers charged families tuition for kids who stopped attending. A few families continued to pay anyway in a show of support, they reported.
Along with the stay-at-home order came guidelines that child care centers should open only for essential workers.
O’Halloran, whose enrollment numbers also dropped dramatically in mid-March, had families in that category. And when she consulted with policymakers, the direction was to communicate that to her families, however, it was not her duty to police whether someone was in one of the many lines of work deemed essential.
There were some staff members who did not want to come in, she said, and that worked out because of the decline in enrollment.
On May 4, the guidelines around child care centers loosened somewhat in the safer-at-home phase, primarily opening them up to nonessential families.
After that, Little Lambs filled back up to reduced capacity, including a handful of new families who couldn’t find care elsewhere.
Havener and Martin said they, along with Heritage Park and Holy Name, are at this time planning to open in June.
They still face many challenges, like getting sufficient supplies of disposable masks, gloves, sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, Havener said.
The decisions for parents continue to be agonizing. And the messaging continues to be mixed. Last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned in Senate testimony: “We don’t know everything about this virus, and we really better be pretty careful, particularly when it comes to children.”
As far as kids and masks, the guidelines apply to kids ages 3 or 4 and older, and include words like “when appropriate,” and don’t advise forcing masks on toddlers.
“For many kids, they end up playing with them so much and touching their face more,” Havener said.
Martin wonders about what the impacts of wearing masks is going to have on kids who are developing their facial recognition abilities and how they learn to interpret other peoples’ feelings.
Havener talked about the decision-making process now, and considering the economics, public health and mental health concerns.
“We are trying to weigh all of those very important factors in a way that makes sense,” she said.
The kids miss their friends, all of the directors said. That is clear. Isolation is hard on them.
The directors and teachers also miss seeing their kids — “Terribly, horribly, every day,” Martin said. “Every time someone sends me a picture, I stop what I’m doing and fall apart.”
Havener emphasized that every family is different, making different choices, and those choices need to be respected.
“I repeatedly said to the parents, the most important thing to do is to make sure everyone feels safe and feels loved,” Havener said. “You can let everything else go. As long as your family feels safe and connected and loved — you are going to be just fine.”
From an economic perspective, Moore-Kemp and Stoller can’t overstate the critical role played by child care — for all age levels.
“Child care sometimes isn’t the forefront of our minds as we think about businesses and how they function,” Stoller said. “This will be very telling as we reopen. How critical child care is to the success of a community needs to be acknowledged and supported.”
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