‘We knew it was inevitable’: Pa. child care centers wrestle with COVID surge

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Kids at Today’s Child day care

Kids at Today’s Child day care in Clifton Heights, Pa., walk the balance beam. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Ask us about COVID-19: What questions do you have about the current surge?

When Damaris Alvarado reopened her two South Philadelphia child care centers in May, she hustled to make them safe: instituting physical distancing and cleaning guidelines, staggering pickups and drop-offs to avoid bunching parents together, and spending tens of thousands of dollars on air purifying units.

For a while, the preventative measures seemed to work. The centers, which together enrolled 235 kids, had zero documented COVID-19 cases from May through October.

“Everything was going well,” Alvarado said, “prior to the second wave.”

On Nov. 17, Alvarado got the news she had been dreading: One of her staff members had tested positive for COVID. She said she immediately closed down that classroom and contacted families.

But it was too late. The staff member had a grandchild enrolled in one of the centers, and on Nov. 19 she tested positive. That same day, a toddler in a different classroom did as well. Within a few days, 14 children and staff members were sick. That week, Alvarado decided to shut down both her child care centers through the end of the year.

Alvarado said she’ll lose tens of thousands of dollars during the closure, but that isn’t what weighs on her the most.

Days after shuttering, just before Thanksgiving, the father of one of her staff members who had tested positive passed away with coronavirus. Alvarado now regrets not closing weeks earlier.

“[I feel] absolutely guilty,” she said. “I felt as though I had to choose money versus the health and safety of my staff, their families and the families that I serve.”

Child care centers in Pennsylvania are facing a dark winter. With coronavirus cases surging, and government relief aid far reduced from the early days of the pandemic, providers are struggling as they navigate how to stay afloat financially while keeping the children they serve and their staffs safe.

‘They can’t afford to close’

In Pennsylvania’s coronavirus vaccine plan, both child care staff and school teachers are considered ‘frontline workers’ — in line to get the vaccine just behind health care workers and older and frail adults in assisted living facilities.

But though they are grouped together, the conversation about child care in Pennsylvania during the pandemic has been very different — and much quieter — than the one about K-12 schools.

Over the summer, aggressive pushback by concerned teachers forced school district administrators in cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to delay a return to in-person learning. Meanwhile, child care centers reopened without much debate.

Part of that is because most child care providers and staff are lower-paid and non-unionized. A possibly bigger factor, however, is that child care centers are businesses that need to stay open to survive.

The state’s child care industry had benefited from more than $220 million in federal coronavirus stimulus funding. But the last of those payments were distributed in October. And in September, Pennsylvania stopped paying providers subsidies based on their pre-pandemic enrollments.

“Without those additional resources, like the subsidy payment or additional CARES dollars, these programs are on the verge of closing,” said Diane Barber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Child Care Association.

About 400 of Pennsylvania’s roughly 7,000 licensed child care providers are currently closed.

Pennsylvania does not publish data on how many people in its schools have contracted the coronavirus, but it does for state-licensed child care centers: as of Dec. 15, 858 children and 1,241 staff members have tested positive.

Some child care providers and advocates are skeptical those figures tell the full story.

“I receive phone calls from staff members who say, ‘The owner of my child care facility is threatening me that if I say something [about a COVID-19 case] they are going to fire me,’” Alvarado said. “Because if they close, they are not going to ever reopen.”

Barber said she’s heard similar stories of providers not reporting cases. “They can’t afford to close, and they can’t afford to scare off people.”

A Department of Human Services spokesperson noted that, in part because of this concern, the state recently began to pay providers closed due to the coronavirus subsidies based on their enrollments for two weeks.

Still, some staffers at child care centers say not taking the precautions seriously enough can put people at risk.

At the Penn Children’s Center, a child care facility that gives preference to the children of faculty, staff and students at the University of Pennsylvania, sources say several staff members have quit due to COVID concerns.

One source, whom Keystone Crossroads agreed to keep anonymous, said that once the center reopened in the summer, about a half-dozen people left, an unusual rate of turnover.

“It was kind of indicative of the kind of environment that we were working in,” the source said.

For example, this person would be moving from classroom to classroom during the same week or even the same day, so they could be in up to four classrooms a week, which they found stressful. The center stopped doing that in September, after a parent who had been to the center tested positive.

When that happened, the center closed the affected classroom for a day. The staff member said that was frustrating because Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for child care centers recommend dismissing students and most staff for two to five days if a student or staff member tests positive.

A spokesperson for the University of Pennsylvania said the center has followed all state regulations with regard to positive cases and works with the university’s contact tracing team, which partners with the Philadelphia Board of Health.

Another anonymous staff member complained that management could better enforce physical distancing and other disease mitigation efforts, while acknowledging it’s hard to get young children to comply.

This staffer eventually left the center and applied for unemployment benefits. They said they live with two people who are at higher risk of getting infected, and did not want to put them in danger.

“It just seemed like every week it got to be less and less worth it because of … keeping my family healthy and safe,” they said.

‘The parents are worried’

Pennsylvania policymakers have to walk a tightrope when it comes to child care: balancing safety measures to slow the spread of the pandemic with the needs of working families on a tight budget.

So far, the research on coronavirus transmission within the sector writ large has been encouraging.

Though children can get infected with COVID-19 and spread it to others, data has shown they are less likely to do either than adults are. And a nationwide study from Yale University published in October found that child care workers are not at increased risk of contracting the virus.

Yet this research doesn’t seem to be making a dent in public perception. As COVID-19 case numbers ebbed over the summer, attendance rates at child care centers across the state climbed close to pre-pandemic levels. But as the virus has resurged, those rates have plunged. Now, Barber said, her members are largely reporting attendance rates of between 45% and 60%.

“Some of those initial fears that families had back in May and June when we began to open — they are even more so now, with the rise of COVID numbers,” Barber said. “They’re afraid of group care, even as they desperately need it.”

The experience of one prominent Philadelphia child care provider’s first coronavirus case shows how damaging that fear can be.

Last month, a child enrolled at the Children’s Village in Center City was found positive for COVID-19 after getting tested with family ahead of a planned Thanksgiving trip.

The center closed the affected classrooms and sent exposed staff into isolation. But within a few hours of the news, more than half of all the other kids in the center had been picked up early by their parents, said executive director Mary Graham.

“Even if the child isn’t in that classroom, the parents are worried,” she said.

By the end of the day, more than a dozen families had withdrawn from the center permanently.

Graham said the experience makes her think that the state should adjust its vaccine plan.

“We better be in line [for the vaccine] before the school teachers, if the schools are closed and we are open,” she said.

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