Parents going back to work as Virginia reopens may have trouble finding care for their children.

Child care providers are considered essential personnel per Virginia’s COVID-19 directives, yet a drop in enrollment has meant more than half of child care programs in Fredericksburg and Stafford, Spotsylvania and King George counties have closed since the coronavirus outbreak in early March.

“Prior to COVID, we show 240 child care programs operating in those localities. They included licensed child care centers, licensed family day homes, voluntarily registered providers, etc.,” wrote Mary Braxton of The Childcare Network, a Fredericksburg-based nonprofit that is part of a statewide network of child care resource and referral centers. “We now have 94 reported as being open.”

Statewide, 36 percent of child care centers and 15 percent of in-home programs closed in March, Braxton said. Eighty-five percent of preschool programs closed and 97 percent of programs for school-aged children closed.

Altogether, 47 percent of all child care programs were closed as of March 31.

Those that have remained open have limited space because they are operating under regulations mandating no more than 10 people to a room, including teachers.

“The group size limit is what is hurting us the most,” said Amanda Short, owner and director of The Alexander School of Early Learning in Spotsylvania. “If they don’t start lifting these, we have no room.”

“I have heard of quite a few [centers] in the area that have shut down,” Short added. “What are parents [headed back to work] going to do if they don’t lift our group sizes to be able to accommodate [them]?”

She said her center has been operating at 34 percent of its capacity.

“That’s as much as we are able to do with the state regulations that are on us,” she said.

The children still attending her program are the children of essential workers, such as nurses, grocery store clerks and bankers, Short said.

Other parents have told her they can’t wait to send their children back to their regular routines, but she’s still up against the class-size restrictions.

“There are no spaces if they keep us to 10 in a classroom,” she said.

Groups of more than 10 are still prohibited under Virginia’s Phase I reopening, which began May 15.

Earlier this month, the Virginia Child Care Association sent a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam asking that he raise the group size maximum in child care settings to 15, including teachers.

“This very small increase in numbers will help us better meet the needs of child care beyond just that of families with essential workers,” the letter stated. “Such an opportunity enables working families of all professions to have access to the licensed, safe care provided by private child care businesses, while also helping to rebuild the financial strength of these critical, often-small companies.”

Braxton said it’s too hard to track how many of the programs that closed are now trying to reopen.

Many of the programs have applied for financial assistance through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES, and “that will impact whether or not some of them are able to reopen,” she said.

“Another factor, unfortunately, is that some may be able to reopen but not remain open upon doing so,” she added.

A LIMITED REOPENING

Leah Spruil, owner and director of Always Sonshine Learn and Play in Spotsylvania, had to close her center on April 6.

“We actually went from 65 families to five families that needed our services, and 13 teachers, literally within a two-week span,” she said. “We had a handful of essential workers who were enrolled, but even some essential workers said, ‘I’ll get mom to watch [the children].’ ”

“It was a big trickle effect. We went in the red very quickly and I thought, ‘There’s no way to survive at this point,’ “ Spruill added.

Spruill was able to work out a payment plan with her landlord so she could defer her rent for a time. She is in the process of applying for grants and loans available to small businesses through the CARES Act, such as the Payroll Protection Plan, which provides loans for payroll expenses.

Spruill has been in touch with her families and is planning to reopen Always Sonshine on Tuesday.

Like other centers, Always Sonshine will have new protocols when it reopens. In addition to the limit of 10 people to a room, teachers and children will have their temperatures taken at the door. Teachers will try to maintain six feet of distance between children and parents will no longer be able to accompany their children to their classrooms.

Spruill will now be asking parents to pack meals and snacks for their children, instead of preparing and serving meals on site.

To reduce the amount of outside germs coming into the facility, Spruill said she’s also thinking about asking parents to buy a pair of shoes for their children to keep at her facility.

“So you’d take off your outside shoes and put on your day care shoes at the door,” she said. “We’re gonna talk about it at our next [virtual meeting]. To be honest, I feel in my heart that it would be a good call, but I also don’t want to add to the families’ morning rituals.”

There will also be a stricter sick child policy, Spruill said.

“If your child is suffering from teething and having a runny nose because of that, you’ll need a doctor’s note [before the child is allowed to enter the facility],” she said. “There will just be a lot of precaution.”

Spruill said she will have 27 families attending when her program reopens, but that number could change as the outlook for the virus changes.

“I had like maybe five families immediately tell me they were going to re-enroll on the 26th, and then a day later email me back to say they wanted to wait,” she said.

A DIFFERENT APPROACH

To explore ways to stabilize and strengthen Virginia’s child care industry in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and for the future, the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation last month assembled a task force which will meet monthly, starting May 22 and continuing through November.

The task force, Back to Work Virginia, is made up of representatives from the business and education communities.

Jim Dyke, senior advisor at McGuire Woods Consulting and one of three co-chairs of the task force, said the business community recognizes that investing in the child care industry and early childhood education is essential in rebuilding the economy and creating a strong workforce.

Dyke sees the crisis as “an opportunity to figure out what we need to do differently” to ensure that all Virginians have access to quality child care.

“What’s happening in this pandemic is that you have people now who are thinking about [the child care issue] who haven’t thought about it at all before,” he said. “Both the public and private sector need to look for ways to make sure we have a stable early childhood education system in place.”

For Dyke, that would involve strengthening programs that train child care professionals and ensuring that they are paid better.

Child care also needs to be affordable for Virginia’s families, Dyke said.

“We don’t want [families] to have to make a choice between paying their mortgage or paying for child care,” he said. “We want to make sure everyone has access to this service that not only helps them, but helps us, because the future is coming from these kids. We need every able bodied person to be involved in the work force.”

“Every one of those folks is going to help grow our economy,” Dyke continued. “We are all invested in this.”

Adele UphausConner:

540/735-1973

auphaus@freelancestar.com

@flsadele

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