Without clear guidance, child care providers make tough choices on whether to close or stay open

Tim Lopez skates with his daughter Samantha Lopez as a way to pass the time with her on March 17 in Juneau. Typically the 2-year-old would be at a child care facility in the middle of the day, but most in Juneau have closed. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

On a sidewalk in downtown Juneau, Tim Lopez balances on a skateboard with his 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter Samantha.

Normally the wiggly toddler would be in a child care program at Little Eagles and Ravens Nest.

“The coronavirus scare has her child care shut down right now,” he said.

In fact, most child care facilities in Juneau have shut down.

The Discovery Preschool is still open. Director Blue Shibler said it would have a big impact on parents if she closed, so she doesn’t want to do it without some kind of official guidance.

“We have parents here who are essential to the work of the Legislature, the work of the state. We have parents here who are essential medical providers,” Shibler said.

Right now, there isn’t any official directive to close. In fact, even though hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren have been sent home until May, the state put out a memo on Tuesday recommending that child care facilities stay open “if they can safely do so.”

But Shibler and others said it’s not clear what that means. The state’s guidelines pull from advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to those guidelines, no child who has been outside of the state should be allowed in. Neither should anyone one who has a fever or respiratory symptoms.

Those are things Shibler is already doing.

But she said other guidance is tricky. For instance, there should be fewer than 10 in a group. But does that mean students and teachers?

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And the state suggests that child care facilities should stay open so that children aren’t at home with aging grandparents or elders while parents are at work. But Shibler said she has staff who are vulnerable — including an older person and two who are pregnant. She laid them off so they wouldn’t be exposed to the virus.

She said other guidance just doesn’t make sense to try with children.

“The notion that while the children are in a classroom, they should practice social distancing? I want someone to come here and watch me try to keep toddlers six feet apart from each other,” she said.

Shibler said she plans to stay open for now. But she is frustrated with the state’s guidance and feels that, with restaurants and bars closed, there are two different safety standards for adults and children. And she said she hasn’t had a lot of luck getting anyone at the state to respond.

But shutting down would come with its own set of problems. A lot of child care providers have slim profit margins. And that means the choice to close comes with a cost.

Gretchen Boone flips through a picture book for an infant at the Gold Creek Child Development Center in Juneau on May 11, 2018. Boone is the center's director.
Gretchen Boone flips through a picture book for an infant at the Gold Creek Child Development Center in Juneau on May 11, 2018. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

“We have decided not to refund tuition for March, because we need to pay teacher wages,” said Gold Creek Child Development Center Director Colleen Brody. It closed earlier this week.

That decision was hard enough. But there are some uncomfortable questions left to answer. What if they have to stay closed? Child care facilities need to keep paying staff, so it’s easy to reopen quickly. But do they ask parents to front the cost of tuition and keep children at home?

“Especially if parents can’t work because there’s not child care, expecting them to pay that tuition is difficult,” Brody said.

Closing also puts staff at child care centers in a tough spot, according to a Rain Coast Data analysis — they generally make about half the average Juneau wage and have few benefits like health care or retirement.

Brody said there are otherproblems with closing too. Gold Creek has a number of low-income families that rely on state child care assistance funding to pay their tuition.

“We have to fill out attendance forms for them, and if they don’t meet a specific (attendance), then they might not receive their funding,” Brody said.

She doesn’t know if the state will make exceptions because they’re closed. Additionally, the facility relies on a grant that is based on attendance.

“If we’re closed for half of the month, then our grant will be halved,” she said. “So what kind of allowances will be made for that?”

No one from the state Department of Health and Social Services returned repeated phone calls and messages seeking answers to those questions.

Dr. Anne Zink, chief medical officer for the state of Alaska, briefs reporters on the coronavirus at a news conference with Gov. Mike Dunleavy on March 10 in Anchorage. (Photo by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

During a Wednesday press conference, the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, talked about why the state chose to close schools but asked child care facilities to stay open.

Zink said they closed schools for until the end of March for two reasons: As a precaution to keep students who are coming back from spring break from mixing with other students; and to prepare for tele-education.

For child care facilities, Zink said the state wants them to follow CDC guidelines. According to those guidelines, in communities like Juneau, where there isn’t yet a case of the virus, it may not be time to close. The CDC recommends that before making the decision to close, child care providers should coordinate with local and state health officials.

“We do feel like child care is an important thing to be able to keep businesses up and running, hospitals up and running and to keep kids engaged, and we know that we’re not as concerned about those kids itself,” she said.

Zink and others from the Department of Health and Social Services said that providers can reach out to a state email address — but it’s backed up and might take awhile to get answers.

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