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Day care centers face obstacles as they adapt to operating in pandemic

  • The VCP Children’s Center Director Lisa Pike, left, takes the temperature of Mitchell Kingsbury, 3, right, before his dad, Evan Kingsbury, can leave him and his brother Garrett, 4, at the center in Bradford, Vt., Friday, July 10, 2020. Multiple temperature checks are required for the children daily, and parents cannot pass beyond the entryway as a precaution to limit possible transmission of coronavirus. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Stephanie Windsor sprays disinfectants over surfaces at VCP Children’s Center after a morning play session in Bradford, Vt., Friday, July 10, 2020. Windsor is working full time cleaning at the center, where cleanings have become more frequent throughout the day and door handles are disinfected whenever a person enters or exits the building. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Teachers assistant Catlyn Beck helps Cameron Balch, 3, spell his name at top left, at the VCP Children’s Center in Bradford, Vt., as Director Lisa Pike talks with Dakota Zack, 4, right, and Gabe Glaude, 4, relaxes on the carpet Friday, July 10, 2020. Children are given the option, but are not required to wear masks at the center, though all adults must wear face coverings. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/13/2020 9:03:26 PM
Modified: 7/13/2020 9:06:44 PM

GRANTHAM — After years of working in the child care industry and dreaming of owning her own center, Jenn Parker took ownership of Creative Kids Adventures on March 9. Days later, President Donald Trump would declare that COVID-19 was a national emergency and governors in the Twin States issued stay-at-home orders, unpendig the routines of daily life.

“The timing was not ideal,” she said in a phone interview last week.

Parker’s center, which is licensed to provide care for 100 children ages 6 weeks to 12 years at locations in Grantham and Hartford, has remained open throughout the pandemic.

To do so, she applied to both states to provide care for children of essential workers. Even then, at one point enrollment dropped to just 15 children, she said.

Last month the center reopened more broadly, welcoming back more families and kicking off its summer camp in Hartford, bringing up the center’s enrollment to about 70% of its licensed capacity.

“It’s going well,” Parker said.

Getting to this point, though, has required centers that have remained open like Porter’s to make adjustments to their cleaning procedures, add health checks for children and staff, reduce class sizes and alter drop-off protocols to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Staff now wear masks, while children have the option to wear them. The changes have come with additional costs for cleaning supplies, as well as reductions in revenue due to caring for fewer children. While government support has helped centers survive to this point, they’re not certain what the future holds.

“It’s certainly been an experience, that’s for sure,” said Lisa Pike, the director of VCP Children’s Center in Bradford, Vt.

Prior to the pandemic, the center on Lower Plain Road was licensed to care for 36 children aged 6 weeks through 5 years old. Because one of the greatest needs once schools closed down was for care of school-aged children of essential workers, Pike applied for a variance to the center’s license to be able to care for children through age 10. She’s since made that change permanent.

“If and when school starts back up, we can provide before-school care (and) after school care for elementary-aged kids,” she said.

Staff members have had to modify their teaching styles to work with older children and to help them with their remote schooling, she said.

“It was a huge adjustment for the elementary kids,” Pike said.

They had to learn to “navigate a whole new normal,” she said. “All of the changes happened so quickly.”

But after a few weeks, Pike said they got used to being at the center, with the other kids and with the staff.

To keep up with the additional cleaning required under the new COVID-19 regulations, Pike now has one staff member solely dedicated to cleaning the facility, she said. Staff members and parents who enter the building now wear masks. The center does regular temperature checks of children and staff.

For now at least, things seem stable financially and otherwise, Pike said.

Though the pandemic has clearly illustrated that child care is critical to enabling parents to work, it hasn’t changed the challenge that parents face in paying for quality child care or the centers’ challenge in operating while charging rates that parents can afford.

“I don’t know how long it’s going to be sustainable,” Pike said.

Deborah Kerwin, who directs Potter’s House School and Child Care Center in Hartford, said she opted to stay open to care for children of essential workers in order to keep her staff employed and to provide continuity of care for some of the children in the program, several of whom are in foster care.

Because families are no longer allowed in classrooms under the COVID-19-era regulations, Kerwin switched the door through which families enter the building. Before the pandemic, parents would escort the children to classrooms, but now staff greet children at the door, take their temperatures and bring them to wash their hands before they go to their classrooms, Kerwin said.

To prevent staff members from bringing COVID-19 to work, Kerwin at one point asked that they limit their trips outside of work to the grocery store.

“Just so that none of us are taking any chances and being foolish,” she said.

Adjusting to the new protocols and the fear of an outbreak created anxiety among staff, she said.

“We didn’t know what was coming,” she said.

But so far so good, she said. None of the centers contacted for this story last week had yet had a case of COVID-19.

Staff members at Creative Spirit Children’s Center in West Fairlee have increased their cleaning efforts, said Sheila Bedi, the center’s director and owner. They previously cleaned both at mid-day and each evening, but now they also regularly spray disinfectant on high-touch areas in the bathroom and on doors.

Cleaning supplies have become more expensive and harder to come by, she said. Bedi, who sews, has been making masks for herself and the other six members of her staff. The center is licensed to care for 25 children, ages 6 weeks to 12 years old. When they were caring for pm;u essential workers, they had just seven children attend, but enrollment has climbed back to 20 since they reopened to other families last month, she said.

Prior to the pandemic, the center could provide bedding to children who had forgotten it for naps, but now they have to bring their own, Bedi said. Children with any symptoms, even runny noses, are turned away. Those with fevers must wait 72 hours before returning to the center, which is up from 24 hours before the pandemic.

“There is absolutely no wiggle room,” she said.

Because parents will still need to pay for days that their children miss due to illness, Bedi said she expects some will be upset by the new rule.

“That’s the tough thing,” she said.

Like Kerwin, Bedi said she is anxious that the center could see a case of COVID-19.

“Any day the (other) shoe could drop,” she said. “If somebody were to be positive, what would that mean? Are we going to have to close? We’re really at the whim of those COVID-19 tests.”

She, her staff and families are doing the best they can to avoid that, she said.

“We can try to have fun in the meantime,” she said.

Some Upper Valley child care centers have not been able to reopen. For example, the Early Learning Center at Kendal at Hanover is located next to the senior living facility’s health center and cannot be reopened in that location, said David Watts, Kendal’s human resources director.

He said Kendal is committed to continuing to operate the child care center there because it offers a service to members of the staff and the community, and it adds value for the residents, some of whom volunteer there reading to the youngsters.

The center “brings a real tangible vibrancy (and) vitality to Kendal that really helps our residents,” said Watts, who has a 20-month-old son who attended the center before it closed.

Kendal’s leaders are looking at alternative spaces on the campus to relocate the center as the pandemic persists, he said.

Working parents already struggled to find child care in the Upper Valley before the pandemic hit, said Jenny Levy, Hypertherm’s vice president of people, community and environment. The pandemic only made that more difficult, she said.

“It’s a huge issue,” she said.

Some employees had children at centers or home-care settings that are not reopening, she said. Some have solved the problem by turning to family networks, but others don’t have that type of support. Some who worked nights and normally sleep during the day while their children are in school cut back on sleep in order to care for their children once schools closed, she said.

“People are making it work,” she said. But “not without some detriment.”

Hypertherm — which has 1,200 employees in the Upper Valley, about half of whom are essential workers and have continued working on site during the pandemic — has worked with some employees to adjust schedules for parents who have unexpected child care responsibilities.

The company also is looking for funding and partnerships to help address the challenge for the long term, Levy said. But that path isn’t yet clear.

“At a local level we’re not really sure what to do,” she said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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