‘Everyone’s fearful of exposure’: How families and daycare centers balance children’s needs with virus risks

Their struggle is to keep children and families safe while keeping their doors open.

Hannah Morris has her temperature taken before entering Tender Years Child Development Center in Mechanicsburg, Pa., Aug. 4, 2020. (Mark Pynes / PennLive)

Hannah Morris has her temperature taken before entering Tender Years Child Development Center in Mechanicsburg, Pa., Aug. 4, 2020. (Mark Pynes / PennLive)

This story originally appeared on PA Post.

Whether she’s creating and enforcing new health protocols, reporting to the state Department of Health or communicating with families and staff, there is no “new normal” yet for the director of Kidz Quartz Child Care Center in Camp Hill.

“Every day now is a new day,” said Jennifer Hower, director of the center for 21 years. “Every day is a new adventure. Everything that we did has been changed in some capacity.”

Her center has moved drop offs and pickups of children outside, conducting a temperature screening on every child before they enter the daycare, one of five temperature screenings the center conducts each day.

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“It’s time-consuming because before, people would just plow through the door,” she said. “Now it’s like we have to stop and have extra staff to run the kids and to run them back to the front at the end of the night.”

Kidz Quarterz is one of many daycare centers that are adapting to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. When Gov. Tom Wolf shut down non-essential businesses in March, some were able to get waivers to continue serving workers in essential businesses, but others were forced to shut down until their counties moved into the “green” phase, like Kidz Quarterz.

Now, their struggle is to keep children and families safe while keeping their doors open.

Hower said her team no longer lets parents into the center to avoid possible contamination.

“Everyone’s fearful of exposure because one case could set you down,” she said. “You do all this work to get back to where you were and you start getting progress, and all it takes is one infected person to come through the center to test positive and it could shut us down for who knows how long.”

Daycare centers and preschools are required to follow guidelines created by the state Department of Health that include mask-wearing, social distancing and increased sanitation efforts. If any child or parent linked to the care center is tested for COVID-19, they are required to notify the Department of Health and Human Services.

Kim Shearer, owner of Tender Years, said as COVID-19 spread, her facility went from having approximately 150 children at each of its three locations to around 75 total

She said enrollment at each location varies. It’s Mechanicsburg location is “busting at the seams,” while the Hershey location has seen slower growth.

“We’re onsite right next to the Hershey company, and the Hershey company is allowing their employees to work from home until January 2021. So that has affected us for sure,” she said. “I think that’s why our numbers are a bit lower at the Hershey location.”

Both Kidz Quartz and Tender Years say they’re starting to see a slow rise in enrollment.

“Now that things are open and people are back at work, I’d say that there’s a great demand for childcare,” Shearer said. “People have to work and they need people to care for their children while they do so.”

That’s certainly the case for Keonya Dabney, a mother of four children, all younger than 3, whose husband is deployed. She says she doesn’t have any family who can help care for her children while she is at work.

“I want my kids to be safe, but I also want a roof over our head so we’re not out homeless with no food,” she said. “I cried a lot about it because I felt like a bad parent because I was sending my kids to daycare during a pandemic where people are actually dying, and I didn’t want to be looked at as being a selfish mom.”

Karie Baker says securing safe childcare for her daughter amid the pandemic has proven to be a challenge. She works weekend nights as a nurse at the UPMC Pinnacle Harrisburg hospital and cares for her 3-year-old daughter during the week. She wants to switch to the daytime shift, if she can find child care she feels comfortable with.

“I’m up 6 a.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and then I have to flip back to night shifts and it’s just back and forth,” she said. “It’s really hard — I feel like I’m dying. It just takes a toll on your body — I just don’t feel well.”

She said she’s looking at everything from daycare centers to an at-home part-time babysitter.

“I don’t want to put her in daycare, because of the coronavirus,” she said. “I don’t even know what the right decision is because — I just don’t know,” she said. “So it is stressful trying to decide daycare or no daycare.”

Hower said one of the biggest challenges has been getting new clients. Most parents want to tour the daycare center before they enroll their children, but Hower said the risk of exposure is too high to allow in-person tours.

And it’s not just children who need protection. A study from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California Berkeley found that daycare and child care workers are exposed to more risk than other caregivers because young children and toddlers are less likely to follow social distancing guidelines.

“It is challenging because on top of that you’re trying to maintain and you’re trying to keep the clients that you do have,” Hower said. “It’s just – the workload – it’s tremendous.”

Tender Years’ Mechanicsburg location has taken the step of offering classrooms and support for virtual learners.

“Where we might not have as many newborns coming because of the pandemic, we do have more kids whose parents are choosing that online learning, and we’re creating a program for them,” Shearer said. “So they can come into our center, do virtual learning and then have a continuation of learning with a teacher.”

Rachael Gingrich, a Harrisburg stay-at-home mom, said she put her 3-year-old son in childcare two days a week so she can have time to get extra work done.

“Trying to get anything done with a 3-year-old tagging along is quite difficult, so utilizing childcare for those days has helped me and my son,” she said. “He gets to socialize with other kids his age, and I have the time I needed to tend to the errands.”

She said the risk of exposure is worrisome, but her family is doing everything they can to stay safe.

Jordan Pritchard, executive operations director at The Goddard School of Enola, said in an email that the schools in Enola, Harrisburg and Hershey received waivers from the state to provide childcare for essential workers. They still saw a drop in enrollment, but as Dauphin and Cumberland counties moved into the green phase, more families have come back.

As at Kidz Quarterz, drop-offs and pickups are done outside the facility and each child undergoes a health screening and temperature check before going inside. All students stay in one classroom during the day so mixing does not occur.

“Working families will always have a critical need for high-quality childcare. We serve families with children ages 6 weeks through 6 years who simply must have a stable, reliable solution for their children when they go back to work,” Pritchard said.

For families weighing their child care options, there are several resources available:

PennLive and The Patriot-News are partners with PA Post.

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