After mixed messages, Pa. and Philly agree to shutter day care centers for coronavirus

Al Madinah Learning Center in South Philadelphia is closed amid coronavirus shutdowns. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Al Madinah Learning Center in South Philadelphia is closed amid coronavirus shutdowns. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Amid the coronavirus shutdown, Shamika Williams was grateful one of her family’s routines wouldn’t change — her kids could still go to day care.

Williams, who sends her four-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter to Al-Madinah Learning Center, in South Philadelphia, was happy to find out that — even as schools and other businesses closed for two weeks — day cares had been deemed “essential” by the city.

But around 11 p.m. Monday night, Williams got a text from her day care provider: the center would be closing, on orders from Governor Tom Wolf.

“It was upsetting because it was so sudden,” Williams said. “You’re snatched out of another norm.”

Parents and day care providers described receiving mixed messages and a lack of clear guidance Monday on whether day cares could remain open during the shutdown. As the Wolf administration pushed to close child care facilities, the city listed them as exempt.

By Tuesday afternoon, Philadelphia officials had come around.

“Today we clarified our earlier statement,” city spokesperson Mike Dunn emailed in response to Keystone Crossroads’ questions.  “Day care centers are considered nonessential, but can remain open with a waiver from the State.”

Day cares operating out of someone’s house, that serve fewer than sixteen children (not counting those related to the operator,) are exempt from the ban, according to a Pennsylvania Department of Health spokesperson.

The state will continue to pay subsidies to providers who care for kids enrolled in Child Care Works — a state program that helps low-income families — through April 30th, regardless of whether they are open or not.

Aishah Holiday, the day care director at Al-Madinah, had also been confused. She monitored the news closely Monday, and was relieved to see child care centers were apparently exempt from the shutdown order.

“We went on with business as usual, we told our parents, ‘See you tomorrow. Have a good day!’”

Holiday said she got a note from the state around 6 p.m. ordering her to close.

“I had parents on my phone at 4:30 a.m. [Tuesday],” Holiday said. “Because they had to go to work … I really wish the communication had been a little better.”

Other child care centers in Philadelphia say they did not get the message in time to close Tuesday.

The woman who answered the phone at Daddy’s Daycare in West Philadelphia around noon had just finished sending children home. “We were supposed to be closed last night,” she said.

The woman who picked up at Children’s Corner Day Center in South Philadelphia said it was still open, and would remain so “for as long as they let us.”

“We were getting mixed information,” said Juanita Medina, who owns Mi Familia Childcare Center in Olney.

Medina said by the end of the weekend she had been “getting pretty nervous” about the prospect of remaining open as schools and businesses shut down. Many of her families were too: just ten of the thirty kids who normally attend her center showed up Monday.

The email she received from the state last night ordering her to close was a relief, Medina said. She just wished it had come sooner.

“Even though we are ‘essential,’ we need to think about our families, and ourselves,” she said.

For Shamika Williams, the lack of day care means a very full house for the indefinite future: in addition to her younger children, she has two high schoolers, both of whom are trying to adapt to remote learning.

Williams, a School District of Philadelphia employee working from home, says also tending to her family full-time will be a challenge. But her family, like every other one in the city, is adapting.

“I guess this will be the new norm, until time tells us differently,” she said.

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