COVID-19 adds more challenges to childcare providers.

July 16, 2020

COVID-19 adds more challenges to childcare providers.

By Kate Krieger-Watkins, MCP Staff Writer

For anyone who has young children, they know that finding quality child care is a very rough road, especially during the COVID-19 crisis. The State of Michigan has been experiencing a childcare shortage for years and with the number of children needing care compared to the number of care providers, the numbers just don’t add up. 

Families across the state have had to pull children from their current daycares, causing many providers to close their doors or to let staff go. All of these facts ring very true in and around Mason County. Families either do not have anywhere for their children to go while they’re at work, or the families have been laid off or lost jobs due to the coronavirus. Either way, someone is losing out and it can be very frustrating.

Ludington daycare and preschool provider Leta Bowman owns and operates Leta’s Educational Daycare and she has been struggling with massive schedule changes along with the unknowns of who is going to be attending her facility on any given week. 

“Before COVID, I got calls every day asking if I had openings,” she said. “I have a long waitlist, but it was very ironic because when April and May hit, the phones were silent. No one was calling.”

Bowman said she remained open throughout the government shutdown because daycares were allowed to remain open if they cared for children of essential workers.

“Essential workers who came to the facility paid their normal rate,” Bowman said. “Families who kept their children at home, but were essential workers had a ‘good faith amount’ to hold their spot. The amount was significantly less, but I didn’t feel it was right to have them pay their normal amount when not attending.”

Bowman said she understood why some families pull their children from care altogether and she also knew so didn’t have a choice, but to send their children because they had to go to work.

“It’s very stressful,” she said. “I plan a whole year out, but when I didn’t have all my families, I just said that I’d stay on and work with two other my workers. The rest of my employees took unemployment until we had enough children for them to come back.”

Working with for three months with a total of three employees and around eight to ten children, Bowman has now returned to a somewhat normal schedule again at her facility.

“No one knew or knows still what to expect,” she said. “The main reason I stayed open was for my families. I could have higher numbers going forward, but then my families would have to pay more, which in return would mean some were basically working to pay for care and that’s not looking out for my families.”

Like Bowman, the area’s daycares are not only trying to provide what’s best for their families, but have had to increase strict safety protocols. Centers have always had strict rules and guidelines for keeping children, workers and families safe, but now, they are implementing even more protocols to make sure they aren’t spreading COVID-19.

Small Wonders in Pere Marquette Township shutdown completely on March 18, after Gov. Whitmer made her initial shutdown notices. It reopened on June 18 to a completely differently looking daily schedule.

“We reopened at half capacity,” owner, Kathy Gibson said. “We are going to stay at these numbers. When we decided to close, we felt it wasn’t safe and a lot of people were pulling their children. We really struggled with it a lot and didn’t really know what to do.”

Gibson and her assistant director, Melanie Hargreaves both said they have had a really hard time with seeing their families go, but they understand that some families can’t afford to send their children, some have other care alternatives and some just didn’t feel safe sending their children anywhere.

“We had a handful of essential workers who had children here,” Hargreaves said. “We actually screened the parents to see what they were thinking about doing and we had alternatives, so we knew our families were going to be OK.”

One of the biggest struggles Small Wonders is dealing with, as so many of the care facilities are, is the unknown of what’s to come. Most facilities plan far in advance and with little or no warning of closures, Gibson is concerned for what the fall and winter are going to look like for them and all the other daycares.

“We need to make the best choices,” Gibson said. “We don’t want to pack the house just for numbers and to make a profit, that’s not what we do. We are assuming that we’ll stay at these numbers come fall. Think what happens normally in the fall and winter anyway, with all the cold and flu seasons. We are doing extra cleaning already, but it just wouldn’t be right to pack the house to pack the house.”

On top of all the new guidelines and rules from the government, Gibson said receiving any real information to plan before these guidelines are put into place is basically not happening either.

“It took forever to hear from licensing,” Gibson said. “Guidance on what to do doesn’t really exist. After about the first three weeks things started to unravel, there wasn’t much communication. Why can we be open and the schools can’t? It doesn’t make sense and there’s no happy medium. Everyone needs to be on the same page and do what’s best for these families. It’s heartbreaking. We are terrified for all the families that don’t have a place to go.”

Next Generation Learning Center (NGLC) in Manistee was also majorly affected by COVID-19 and it also decided to shut its doors to families. NGLC is an extension of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians’ executive branch of government. It shut down in mid-March due to most families not being essential workers or they had other arrangements they could make for care. 

“As the state began more closures, our ogema also continued with executive orders,” director Holly Karlsen said. “It was decided that NGLC would remain closed due to the rapid changes in research, information, guidance and to maintain the safety of our team, children, and families that attend. Once our governor deemed it safe to open northern Michigan, we were granted permission to open at a limited capacity based on guidance from the Center of Disease Control, American Academy of Pediatrics and LARA licensing for child care.”

Karlsen said not only are all daycare providers struggling to find balance during this very unknown time, but they all look different in the way they provide care to children and this has also been a factor in the daycare crisis as well.

“I think sometimes we tend to want to lump all childcare into one category when really

there are different providers around our state that provide care,” she said. “We have homes, group homes, and childcare centers. Each site has its own challenges and individual needs

based on the COVID pandemic. We need to consider the region they are in, the number

of children they typically serve, the staff that is available to provide the care to children,

and if the provider is non-profit or for profit. 

“I think at first there was fear, fear about the pandemic itself and about how to maintain a business. Supplies (personal protective equipment and cleaning) were extremely limited in the beginning and wait time for receiving these supplies could last up to a month. There is also the fact that many of our childcare providers do not have health benefits and the risk of putting themselves or their families in danger outweighed the decision to remain open. I think if you were to ask any provider the largest issue we are all facing is that the whole childcare system is at a threat of collapse due to economic hardships. Many programs are closing their doors, unable to sustain their daily operations with dwindling enrollment and increased guidance.

“Although the State of Michigan did offer some small business loans for childcare businesses, and there is currently a grant provider can apply for the loans there are still daily challenges that are being faced and deciding factors on when or if to open again. 

“Childcare workers were deemed essential during the first executive order put in place by our governor. Providers that have remained open for essential workers from the beginning unfortunately do not feel the same respect as other essential workers. There appears to be a disconnect on the value of the work our providers due every day and the respect they deserve as frontline workers.”

Whether or not a person is an essential worker, the lack of daycare will remain the same until something differently is done. Kristi Zimmerman, resource coach for Lakeshore Employer Resource Network of Mason County, operated through United Way of Mason County, has worked with families for two and a half years, helping assist them in a variety of needs, one being finding daycare.

“Every time the phone rings and it’s someone looking for daycare my heart sinks,” she said. “It’s so difficult. In the two and a half years here, I’ve been successful once. It took 30 calls to find a spot. It’s a heartbreaking situation.”

Zimmerman said she has had people have to quit their jobs because they cannot find care for their children.

“There needs to be more help for people,” she said. “We don’t have enough licensed facilities that have enough spots. It’s affecting all inequalities. Money is always an issue. Usually they make too much to qualify for assistance. Their income has to be so low to qualify, but then the income to exit from assistance is a lot higher, so families stay in for a long time. There’s a huge number of people who it’s not affordable for them and if they don’t have other relationships to help out, they’re in a world of hurt.”

Zimmerman said many people out there are walking a fine line of either paying bills or being able to pay for daycare and to continue to hold their spot for care they end up paying for daycare and then cannot pay some or many of their own bills.

“COVID-19 has destabilized the whole industry,” Zimmerman said. “Kids have relationships with their providers and now those relationships are being severed because of the inability to afford care if the family members aren’t working. The childcare providers have been really helpful when I call looking for assistance, but I don’t see a local solution. It needs to be at the state level. It’s so sad.”

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