Child care centers face challenges as school year looms

Since opening the first Shell’s Child Care and Recreation Center nearly 25 years ago, Lichell Isaac has seen the ups and downs.

She’s adapted to different child care licensing; she’s implemented new education or group size models for child care; she has opened the doors to new centers in Maryland and Delaware. The challenges this year will present, however, are unlike anything in the last two decades.

“We’ve been here from the beginning and we are definitely essential,” Ms. Isaac said. “And we’re even more essential now, with schools having the option to open or close. In child care, we’ve been carrying this from day one.”

While school districts across the state determine how they’ll start the school year — a decision that comes after Gov. John Carney’s OK to go hybrid and the Delaware State Education Association urging for a six-week remote start — child care centers are in the middle of those choices.

“The difference is just figuring it out as you go. Normally when they make changes to the licensing regulations and things like that, you get time to comment on it, you get time to learn more about it, to make the adjustments,” Ms. Isaac said. “Now the time is less than 30 days away … So we’re about three weeks away and we have to have some type of plan in place by then in order to accommodate the students but we don’t have the answers to make the necessary accommodations.”

As part of the governor’s announcement, liaisons from child care facilities are working with school districts and charters to determine steps moving forward. Ms. Isaac is one of them. The group started meeting last week.

The Department of Education, which is facilitating the effort, hopes that the small groups will work together to “understand the needs of families in the districts, understand the capacity of child care programs in the districts, and, most importantly, foster a culture of communication and collaboration between the early learning community and the K-12 community,” said Alison May, a spokeswoman for DOE.

DOE has tapped 26 child care providers to participate. Providers were randomly selected to participate from a pool of volunteers, she said.

Looking at her various centers across the state — Milton, Frederica, Harrington and Dover — Ms. Isaac said that the Shell centers all have different needs as staff prepares for the year ahead. One part is obtaining license approval to let children spend extended hours on the computer as they receive their remote instruction. Another part is creating additional space so children can maintain separation. Another is ensuring the wifi can support all of the children accessing their lessons (one site’s internet access has to be upgraded, she noted).

“I think the biggest part of that is making sure we have the correct teachers in place, and learning what the expectations of the centers are — what are they expecting from us?” she said. “Are we going to be imitating the school per se, or are we just providing that support service so they can get online, work on their group and then they come offline? We’re still kind of trying to map all of that out.”

Increase in requests

What she has seen, though, is a “dramatic increase” in requests for childcare — which poses another problem. Under Phase Two, child care facilities are open to all Delaware families (previously, child care providers had to be designated as emergency child care sites), but the maximum allowable group size is 15 children.

It’s an issue school district leaders are following closely as it impacts their operations as well.

“We’ve got a few folks that reached out to us and we reached out to some organizations, to try to expand their ability to support students,” said Lake Forest Superintendent Steven Lucas during a board meeting Thursday. “I know that, in the meeting I was in with, with the state, there was a suggestion that there was going to be some support and assistance from the state. … We’ve talked to several local organizations who offered to increase their capacity to help provide some childcare options.”

The sentiments were echoed upstate.

“And that’s another challenge with this as you go to a hybrid model — or whatever model that you go to,” said Appoquinimink Superintendent Matt Burrows in a school board meeting Tuesday. “… Most of our childcare facilities are usually filled to the max.”

Megan Coats, director for Learning Tree Academy in Middletown, said that was the case.

“We’re all full because we have all of our families who’ve been with us. So we’re not able to take any new families,” she said. “We’re kind of talking to the school district about: What are your other families going to do, now they don’t have school, where are they going to put their kids? Because we’re all full because of the lower ratio.”

She said she has been reaching out to current families in the center to see who really needs their services when school starts.
How school districts start their classes also impacts the teachers who have children.

“We’ve also had a lot of school district teachers calling in because now they need care for their children who they otherwise wouldn’t have needed it. We have a little space available for other families,” said Melody Hines, an administrator at The Breakfast Club in Milford.

Remote learning

Beyond getting the children through the door, the centers also have to figure out how to facilitate remote learning.

With the children they have — who run the gamut of 6 weeks old through 12 years old — remote learning in coordination with the district will be tricky, Ms. Coats said.

“Trying to make sure we can meet the needs of each child is what we’re concerned about because we have so many kids at different grade levels and also the different schools in the area,” she said. “Just the continuity between grades and all that and how we’re going to be able to actually help and support those kids here during the day.”

Looking back to March, the class structures were looser, she said.

“They did a Zoom meeting in the morning so the parents kind of dropped the kids off after the Zoom meeting or they would just do it during the day whenever they were able to do it when they got home,” she said. “So we didn’t really see much of that coming into our program at that time. So definitely very different from what we’re going to be going into.”

The structure of a day at The Breakfast Club will depend on the district.

“We’re just trying to work with the district to come up with the best solution,” Ms. Hines said. “We really have to wait until they come out with their actual schedule, because if there’s teachers that are doing live Zoom classes or videos, obviously we’ll have to log them on at a precise time and you know that that makes scheduling a little harder here but it’s something we’re willing to do for our families.”

To accommodate for potentially more children — especially during the typical school day — that means more staff.

“They’ve all pretty much committed to working as many hours as we need for the center. So we’re fortunate in that we can separate the children based on the grades,” Ms. Hines said. “And then we’ll follow that schedule [for classes].”

Ms. Isaac is doing interviews this week to add at least one more staff member to handle opening and closing.

“Now with the parents not being able to come in the center, there always has to be a runner, to take the child outside, or to bring the child inside,” she said. “That’s the challenge and ensuring that we have that extra staff person when the parents do come to pick up or drop off.”

That comes with a fiscal impact to the center, she said.

“I’m very nervous that without increased funding, my prices have to go up and whether or not the parents will be able to afford my prices so that’s the biggest nervousness, and I’ve never had that before,” she said. “You have a fee increase, some people leave, most people stay, a few leave you, get more people. It always leveled itself out but this particular time the scary part is: what’s going to happen next? And we just don’t have the time to figure it out, we have to figure it out as we go.”

The details leading up to this year notwithstanding, Ms. Isaac said that the day care centers will fulfill their role this year.
“We love what we do, we do what we love, and we’re willing to make the adaptations in order to make sure that our babies are taken care of, young and old,” she said.

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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