Nina Shapiro for the Seattle Times

A day after the Seattle Public Schools superintendent announced she would recommend all remote learning in the fall, Angelia Hicks-Maxie, a South Seattle child care provider, said she was “freaking out.”  Hicks-Maxie, CEO of Tiny Tots Development Center, whose programs include before- and after-school care, had for months faced an onslaught of risks and changes because of COVID-19.  Her enrollment plummeted by more than half as nervous parents kept their kids home. She worked to make her sites as sterile as a hospital, removing carpets, having staff wear nursing scrubs washed every night, and instituting a mask policy for staff and children 4 and up. (The state mandate starts at age 5, with exceptions for eating and outdoor time.) Staff were exhausted from constant cleaning.  “Now, they have thrown this in our laps,” said Hicks-Maxie, referring to the school district announcement of remote classes.

While some children will log on from home under the supervision of parents, many will need to do so from child care operations. Staffers will have whole new responsibilities: making sure children “get” to class, helping them connect by video chat, and answering questions about schoolwork directed their way.  Teachers will be safe at home, Hicks-Maxie noted. She doesn’t blame them. But she said that will leave child care workers as de facto teachers — at half the pay. Many child care workers earn close to the minimum wage, though Hicks-Maxie has given her staff a 25% pandemic bonus and Fridays off.

It’s the latest challenge for an industry not only charged with keeping children safe but considered vital to our front-line response and eventual economic recovery, given the needs of working parents.  The sector has already been so wounded during the pandemic that some fear vastly fewer centers and home-based operations will remain in business when the crisis passes — and there was already a dire shortage.  More than 1,000 statewide were at least temporarily closed at the end of July, according to the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF). The loss represents 19% of licensed providers and a quarter of spots — roughly 47,000 — available for children.

State officials point out that 98 notified DCYF they are closing permanently, while 116 new child care businesses started. But a survey by Child Care Aware of Washington, a nonprofit that supports providers and the families they serve, showed that almost 1,700 businesses — 45 percent of those responding — have considered shutting permanently.  When parents are ready to send their children back to child care, said Lois Martin, vice-president of Washington Child Care Centers Association, “we won’t be here.”

That might be as soon as fall, when summer stopgap arrangements end, many schools remain shut (the Seattle School Board is due to vote on the question Aug. 12), and Congress’ failure so far to renew $600-a-week extra unemployment benefits sends some parents back into the job market.  “I’m a little overwhelmed,” said Katherine Sun, a Bellevue radiation therapist and mom of children going into kindergarten, 6th and 7th grades. The older ones got used to staying home by themselves when schools closed in the spring, though she didn’t like it and left work early when she could.

Grandparents took over the care of her youngest after the girl’s preschool also closed. When the city’s school district announced remote learning for the fall, she started looking for other options. Because so many child care businesses had closed or furloughed staff, she had a hard time reaching people.  She found a private school planning to open. But the cost, much more than she had originally budgeted for before- and after-school care, is beyond her reach — especially since financial strains from the pandemic is prompting her employer to cut her hours by up to 25%.

Tough decisions

After COVID-19 hit in late February, DCYF says, the agency started webinars for the child care industry to offer guidance. But, providers say, in the very beginning they were left to figure things out on their own.  Martin said she talked to families at the Community Day Center for Children, located in Seattle’s Central District and founded by her mother in 1963. A number of parents work at nearby hospitals and clinics.  “‘We signed up for this as medical professionals, but you guys didn’t,’” she remembers parents telling her. “‘You should close.’ And so we did, initially, for three weeks.”

Gov. Jay Inslee soon weighed in. In contrast to how he approached schools, closed in mid-March, he encouraged child care providers to stay open. “Our greatest concern was ensuring that child care was available to the front-line workers,” said Sydney Forrester, Inslee’s senior policy adviser on human services.

The dichotomy puzzles some operators.  “You don’t want to advocate for the closure of your own business,” said Johnny Otto, executive director of Small Faces Child Development Center, in North Seattle’s Crown Hill neighborhood. “But at the same time, when we’re having a debate about what’s healthy for the community and whether public schools should even open in the fall, it’s interesting to me that nobody is having a conversation about why have child cares not been mandated to close in any way, and how are child cares operating with very little social distancing with children in small spaces.”

Some providers are doing their best to keep space between children, but others say it’s impossible or inadvisable, given the social and emotional needs of young children.

On its website, DCYF says kids in child care are kept in smaller groups than at schools and don’t congregate in hallways, gyms and cafeterias. The state Department of Health (DOH) has issued lengthy safety guidelines for child care, including limiting class size, first to 10, upped to 22 in June.  “We are not going to do that because it is not safe,” said Hicks-Maxie, echoing other providers. “The highest we have gone is 14.”

Rigorous cleaning and disinfecting is still a priority, but child care businesses have struggled to find supplies. Martin said she wakes up at 1 or 2 in the morning, when more seems to be available online. She knows other child care directors who go to Lowe’s when it opens at 6 a.m.

To help fill the need, Child Care Aware of Washington raised funds to buy and deliver bleach, soap, toilet paper and paper towels to providers around the state.  Research suggests children under 10 are less likely to spread the virus — another reason state officials approached child care differently than schools, according to State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy.

DOH received reports of 35 child care outbreaks statewide as of Aug. 4. Twenty-two outbreaks were in King County, with 12 children and 48 staffers testing positive, local health officials said the following day.  Many parents — told by the state to keep their children home when possible even as it asked child care operators to stay open — have willingly complied.

Martin, who normally serves 37 children, said she reopened in April with eight. That grew to 27, with a couple of families paying to hold their spot, and she’s expecting more in the fall. But she said she worries her numbers will be not high enough to sustain the business, despite receiving a federal paycheck protection loan and a $6,500 grant from $29 million in federal CARES funding distributed by the state to child care providers.

The state has supported child care in other ways, including by continuing to pay subsidies for low-income children who have been staying home. But child care advocates are lobbying for much more government aid. Federal bills to that effect, one championed by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., are waiting on Senate negotiations of a stimulus package.

Gabrielle Schneck, whose 3-year-old daughter attends Martin’s center, said “it would be a complete disaster” were it to close. Neither Schneck, an immigration lawyer, nor her husband, a PCC Community Markets manager, can work from home.  They started looking for child care two years ago and put their names on several waiting lists before finding the Community Day Center for Children. They’re just getting calls about openings now.

The worst is already coming to pass for Nature Nurtures Farm, an Olympia organization offering child care and summer camps centered on interaction with animals and the outdoors. In January, early education director Rixa Evershed said, “we had so many just amazing plans.”

The organization had gotten an $800,000 state grant to open up a new site that would add 105 child care spots, almost twice its existing capacity. Some of the new spots would be for children experiencing homelessness. It also planned a child care program run entirely on a farm it owns, a new arts curriculum and classes to help parents let their children experience risk outdoors.

As the pandemic took hold, parents suddenly had more fear of the indoors, where the virus spreads more easily. Reopening after a two-and-a-half month hiatus with a greatly reduced clientele, Nature Nurtures Farms tried to drum up enrollment and save the business by offering an entirely outdoor program.  It didn’t work. Nature Nurtures Farm will close for good by the end of August, returning its $800,000 grant.

Details, complications

The onset of remote learning has brought a different set of calculations for providers serving school-age children.  When schools closed in the spring, Mary Curry, whose business operates out of her Tacoma home, bought $200 tablets for four students who came to her for before- and after- school care. She wasn’t sure her families could afford them and didn’t know if the districts they lived in would provide them. Not all did.

“We didn’t want them to fall behind academically,” said Curry, who ended up needing only two of the tablets when two students left because of the pandemic.

Otto, of Small Faces, is putting together a new program to support students in the fall. He has lots of questions.  “Do we have the internet capacity for 60 kids to be livestreaming?” Probably not, meaning the Crown Hill center would have to increase its bandwidth.  “Are we going to hire tutors?” Yes, Small Faces decided, one for math and one for reading.

A coalition of organizations housed at Seattle public school buildings is asking the district to supply them with paraeducators, according to Angela Griffin, executive director of Launch, which normally runs programs at nine schools and three community centers.  “We have children who (have) special needs,” said Hicks-Maxie of Tiny Tots, which has a program adjacent to Wing Luke Elementary on Beacon Hill. Those are some of the students who normally get help from paraeducators at school. “I don’t have their IEP (individualized education program.).”

The South Seattle provider said she worried the education gap between those who succeed and those who don’t, often corresponding to race and income, will grow. “Already, children in this neighborhood are behind,” she said.

There are all kinds of details to think about.

Is the district going to stagger online classes so that different grades log in at different times? If not, trying to simultaneously support kids of varying ages will be a nightmare, Hicks-Maxie said.

Will the district supply access to Wi-Fi in its buildings? What about janitorial services?” It’s “one of the heaviest burdens on our staff,” said Griffin of Launch. The coalition of school-based providers is asking for those things, too.

Seattle Public Schools has committed to paying for utilities in school buildings and cleaning common spaces, but not those used exclusively for child care, according to Griffin, who added administrators seem to want a genuine partnership with providers. She and district spokesman Tim Robinson say other decisions have yet to be made. Some, like whether to send out paraeducators, would involve negotiations with the Seattle Education Association (SEA).  SEA president Jennifer Matter said she has heard nothing from the district about that and would have to see a proposal before commenting.

Hicks-Maxie said she isn’t waiting on the district. She and her staff have begun academic work during the summer, normally a time of games, arts and crafts and field trips.  Even with books packed away, in case they harbor the coronavirus, Tiny Tots’ elementary schoolers spend 45 minutes a day on reading and math, using free computer programs. With so much lost to COVID in the spring and potentially in the fall, the center’s staff reasoned, there is no time to waste.