Child care centers reopening

Rosser Koerber, 4, waters plants in the greenhouse at the Children’s Learning Center last spring. Children’s Learning Center is slowly reopening, but like a lot of child care centers, it has reduced class sizes.

Rob Benedict is considering a huge life change.

With two school-age children, a kindergartener and a fifth grader, he and his wife have their hands full implementing the adapted learning plan students are working under. They’ve both been at home during the pandemic, but they are facing a dilemma as the economy reopens.

He works as an IT manager, his wife at a salon. Their jobs require them to go into work, but they don’t have child care for their kids.

“Before my little girl went to school, we had somebody who would look after her,” Benedict said. “She’s in her 60s or 70s, so she’s a vulnerable member of society. We wouldn’t want to put her at risk.”

With schools closed for the rest of the year and day cares operating at reduced capacity, financial pressure forces parents like Benedict and his wife to make tough choices. High costs of living necessitate returning to work, but most parents rely on schools to supervise their children.

Without that support, families may elect to have one parent stay home. Benedict and his wife are considering just that, as well as pulling their kids out of school if distance learning persists.

“We might as well homeschool, because you get a tax credit for doing it,” Benedict said. “If one of us can’t work because schools aren’t opening, let’s pull our kids out of school.”

No matter how difficult distance education is, federal tax benefits do not exist for families who want to homeschool. Wyoming is not one of the few states that do offer tax breaks for homeschool families.

Schools as child care

Benedict’s conundrum reflects the situation many find themselves in, though he may be considering more drastic measures than most. That’s one reason Teton County School District No. 1 administrators devised a plan to reopen Colter Elementary School as a child care center that could have housed nearly 200 children.

They had hoped to give families of elementary-age children a place where kids would be supervised throughout the day. Similar to the CREST program the district has run on teacher in-service days, the program would have supported kids as they worked on the adapted learning plan.

However, objections to the plan from employees and the school board made it so the district wouldn’t have had enough employees to follow rigorous cleaning and safety guidance from the Wyoming Department of Heath for child care facilities.

“Our goal was to provide service and support for parents going back to work, especially those in essential positions,” Superintendent Gillian Chapman said. “We were hopeful that would provide a service so people could get back to work.”

Not every family may consider schools child care, but for many working families they are the only affordable option. Vacations and work schedules are often planned around the school schedule, which makes the last-minute, extended cancellation of schools all the more difficult.

“During normal times we don’t worry about it as much,” Chapman said.

Not all families are in the predicament Benedict and his wife face. Rachael Wheeler, public health coordinator for the Teton County Health Department, has a 5-month-old child. She and her husband, Chris, have been working from home, though they have employed “alternative scheduling” to take care of their son.

Wheeler normally works a weekday schedule, but so that she and her husband could each have time to work, she’s been working Sundays and nights so that one parent is available at all times.

“It felt like we were pingponging a lot during an already stressful time,” Wheeler said.

Their son is now back in daycare, as he already had a spot at a facility, but many families are not as lucky. Child care facilities around the state are struggling to reopen, as limitations on the number of children and stronger sanitation requirements place a burden on staff.

Hard times

In a survey conducted by Wyoming Kids First and the Wyoming After School Alliance, 89% of responding child care centers said COVID-19 had affected their ability to serve families. Two in five said they worried about their ability to implement safety guidelines like twice-daily sanitizing of high-touch surfaces.

Even though facilities are now allowed to have up to 25 people in one classroom, many are reopening with fewer. Children’s Learning Center started back Monday, but it is holding its numbers to previous restrictions that stipulated nine people in one classroom.

Though that creates a burden on parents who might like to send their kids back, the reduced capacity allows teachers and staff to learn the new regulations.

“All the safety and sanitization in place, it’s really arduous,” Executive Director Patti Boyd said. “It’s doable with small groups, but it’s really tough to do with large groups.”

Boyd’s facility has a lot of new rules in place. Parents can’t come in the building, kids’ temperatures are taken during the day, and teachers wear masks. As employees become accustomed to the new routine, classroom sizes may increase.

Some Children’s Learning Center families are not ready to send their children back, Boyd said. Some are circumspect about enrolling their kids when questions remain about the coronavirus and whether it will see a seasonal decline similar to other viral infections.

Some parents have told Boyd they may wait until June or July to see whether the virus proliferates as the economy reopens. Especially given anecdotal evidence of disease transmissibility in child care centers outside a pandemic, some families are taking a wait and see approach.

“Parents in general are pretty concerned because there’s just no way to keep socially distant little kids,” Boyd said. “On a good day they are little germ factories.”

Child care providers like Boyd and her staff are happy to get back to work, but reduced class sizes add to the challenges of an industry already in a tenuous situation. Statewide, 62.2% of providers said they were not able to access federal relief money through the CARES Act, and a majority said finances were troubling them.

Sixteen percent said they would not be able to stay open if class sizes stayed small.

“Child care in general runs on a small margin,” school board Chairwoman Betsy Carlin said. “Just to have closed for those eight weeks, there are child cares that will not be able to open their doors again.”

In addition to her school board post, Carlin works with Wyoming Kids First and is on Gov. Mark Gordon’s Early Childhood State Advisory Council. She said more money may come in the form of federal relief, but it’s “not going to be enough to fill the gap” for facilities that are already struggling.

With so many families facing tough decisions about how to supervise their kids as the economy reopens but schools stay closed, it can seem like the coronavirus outbreak created a whole new spate of issues. Child care experts say that’s not the case.

“They’re not new problems,” Carlin said. “This just exacerbated something that was already there.”

This article has been updated to show that Wyoming does not offer tax breaks to homeschool families. — Ed.

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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