Gwen Marcus spends her days disinfecting toys and surfaces touched by the 10 children in her care.
“It is constant cleaning,” she said. “I’ve never cleaned so many Lego blocks in my life.”
Marcus is the director of Project Destiny Day Care on the North Side. The center briefly closed in March and was one of the 1,500 statewide to reopen with a waiver to care for the children of essential workers.
Now, staff don medical scrubs and masks. The center purchased shoes for children to wear inside. Every kid has their own set of markers and crayons and they aren’t allowed to bring in outside toys.
The most challenging shift for Marcus, though, has been keeping children apart. She doesn’t require them to wear masks, but the teachers constantly remind children they can’t share toys or play with each other.
“It’s like you took all of my years of training and said ‘OK, now forget everything you’ve ever learned,’” she said.
Now Brenda Gregg, executive director of Project Destiny, said she thinks the changes will be permanent.
“I think once you learn what we’ve learned that we need to be thinking of the cleanliness of the building now even more so,” she said. “I don’t think people will allow children with coughs and colds. We used to be flexible with that. I don’t think we will be as relaxed with those kinds of things anymore.”
The Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning wants child care providers to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines. The CDC recommends limiting the number of children in each classroom and to require children over two-years-old to wear a mask. Those are only recommendations; the state hasn’t changed regulations for centers. On-site licensing inspections have been suspended, but OCDEL says it will investigate complaints if necessary.
Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller says decisions about masking and social distancing will be left up to providers. DHS is holding webinars to answer provider questions and clarify CDC guidance.
“I actually think that guidance is pretty good and pretty helpful in helping providers think through how to do things differently,” she said.
Amy Nordstrom is nervous about reopening her child care center, Little Wonders, in Erie. She has owned the center for 20 years and plans to open May 11 with all but one staff member returning. In the past Little Wonders averaged 60-65 children. Now she expects 25-30 to return.
Nordstrom has asthma, though, and is concerned about getting sick. She said she will not hesitate to close again if her staff feel unsafe.
She spent the last few weeks preparing to run her business differently. She spent hundreds of dollars on cleaning supplies, masks, and touchless soap dispensers. She plans to take the temperatures of all children when they are dropped off. Still, it won’t be perfect.
“Kids are going to be kids. There are things that are going to be unavoidable. The parents have to understand that too. We can't force the kids not to play with each other or, you know, touch another toy that another child just had. It's just going to be a lot of learning,” she said.
She is not satisfied with guidance from the state, and said she has relied on communication in Facebook Groups for PA providers.
Erie is one of the 24 northern counties that entered the yellow phase of Gov. Wolf’s reopening plan on May 8. Thirteen more counties, including Allegheny, will lift some restrictions May 15.
Nordstrom said she hopes the shutdown highlights the importance of child care. Her staff start at $8 an hour and are now putting their health at risk because they’re working with children who have a hard time following safety instructions.
“You know, it’s above minimum wage, but it’s still nothing,” she said. “There’s just not money in [this industry].”
The future of child care will rely on parent trust. Providers say guardians are concerned about putting their children in a group setting.
Kinder Care, a national chain of child care centers, applied and received waivers to open two Pittsburgh-area centers but decided to keep them closed because too few parents needed care.
“We don’t expect to see every family looking to come back right away,” said Melissa Everly the regional director for Kinder Care in Western Pennsylvania.
With so many parents working from home or laid off, the need for child care might be lessened in the next few months. If centers don’t have enough kids to care for, more could permanently close.
That means financial uncertainty for centers that operate on slim margins. Losing out on tuition has been a huge financial hit to the industry.
“I do worry that we have families that are not going to be able to go back to work because they can't find anywhere to put their children,” said DHS Secretary Miller.
She said if the state decides to spend federal stimulus money on child care centers it will be helpful, but that money won’t cover everything.
“We obviously have a major budget problem right now. We don’t have revenues coming in and this is going to be an issue for a while,” she said.
DHS is studying the impact on child care providers now. It’s surveying a sample group of 1,000 centers about the level of investment needed to continue operations. The department plans to complete the study by July.
Cara Ciminillo is the executive director of early learning advocacy group Trying Together. She said how the state’s economy bounces back will have a lot to do with how child care funding is prioritized.
“One of the things that's come out of this is a recognition that child care really is an essential, essential sector. It's an essential workforce. And we've got to be thinking about that infrastructure, as important as we think about, you know, bridges and streets and utilities and hospitals,” she said.
WESA's Liz Reid contributed to this story.