When Colorado Gov. Jared Polis shut down in-person instruction at schools to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, he made one exception. He requested that child care centers remain open to serve the children of essential workers, like doctors, nurses, police and people who operate utility services.
The center where Colleen Ingham’s 2-year-old was enrolled pledged to honor that request, but Ingham didn’t think it made sense to send her own kid to child care, since she doesn’t work in health care or public safety, and she wanted to maintain social distancing as much as possible. She and her husband were working at home, and their older daughter was home, too, because her school had been closed.
But Ingham found herself in a bind familiar to many other families right now — they needed to pay for child care even though they weren’t using it.
“I think all of us are in kind of a tough spot right now financially,” Ingham said. “Just the uncertainty of knowing if we're going to be able to keep our jobs, and having to pay additional money is tough for everyone.”
For Ingham’s family, the weekly cost was $500 in March, just to hold onto their daughter’s spot for whenever she felt ready to send her child back to the center. It was costly, but Ingham felt she couldn’t afford not to do it.
“I think it's up to two- and three-year waits at most daycares in Denver,” Ingham said, “So it's not really an option to cancel our spot at the daycare then potentially my daughter would not be able to get another spot in daycare, you know, once it's safe for everyone to be back in schools.”
Their facility was already slated to change ownership in May and did decide to close for April, so the Inghams won't have to pay again until next month. But lots of families are paying for child care they don’t need right now.
The Bal Swan Children’s Center in Broomfield serves about 250 families, and its leaders decided to close operations when Polis announced closures for K-12 schools. Dianna Herrera, the facility’s director of education, said if other schools closed for safety, the preschool should too.
“I completely understand the need for child care for first responders. I am not sure that a group setting at this time is the right way to go,” Herrera said. “And as we know, children at that age, preschool age especially, they are the most prone to sharing germs with each other.”
But other centers have stayed open. Heather Griffith Harris and her family have operated the Young People’s Learning Center in Fort Collins for 40 years. Griffith Harris said they didn’t want to leave parents in a lurch, and also worried she’d lose employees.
“Our parents have been super supportive. A lot of parents if they can, will for sure keep paying even though the kids aren't there, to support the teachers. But not all of them can do that. They're losing jobs,” Griffith Harris said.
She said the center is following health department protocols — dividing rooms so that teachers and students are limited to groups of 10. They’ve thinned out toys so there’s less to disinfect. And they wipe down surfaces — a lot. Still, there are far fewer children showing up. Griffith Harris had about 125 kids enrolled before the coronavirus; now there are about 30 coming to the daycare.
It’s a stressful time, Griffith Harris said.
“None of us know what tomorrow is gonna bring,” she said.
The state is trying to address that uncertainty. It has an online program to match the children of essential workers with open slots at child care centers. The state will cover the costs of care for those kids through at least May 17.
Michelle Barnes, the executive director of Colorado Health and Human Services, said the state has about 80,000 essential workers with children under age 8. So far the state has coordinated care for a couple of thousand children, she said.
“We encourage anybody who's work is essential right now to apply and get in the queue and we hope that we can get enough providers to stand up that we're able to meet all the demand we need across the state,” Barnes said.
At least one daycare center in Denver that had closed has re-opened to serve children of essential workers. Brad Laurvick is with Highlands United Methodist Church. Its preschool is called NinaBees.
“So the spots we're opening are for the duration of the stay at home order that they, once the state home order is lifted and folks can go back to more regular routines, our regular students would come back and have their spots waiting for them,” Laurvick said.
That’s what Michelle Barnes with the state hopes will happen — that temporary placements will cover costs so that parents not currently using child care services wouldn’t have to pay.
As for the wisdom of throwing young children together who will at times sneeze, slobber and touch each other? Barnes and others said caring for the children of essential workers is vital. They trust child care centers will keep kids and teachers safe so that parents can do their jobs.