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The Complicated Decisions Child Care Providers Are Facing Amid The Coronavirus Outbreak

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Nick Woodward
/
Maine Public
Penni Theriault, the owner of Lots of Tots Child Care in Princeton, Maine, reads to children in June 2019

In recent days, schools across Maine have closed as part of the state's strategy to limit the spread of COVID-19. But state health officials acknowledge that the situation is more complicated for child care facilities. While many have shut down, others are staying open and taking on an increasingly important role in providing care for the children of health care workers and other essential employees.

For 33 years, Penni Theriault has operated Lots of Tots Child Care out of her home in the rural Washington County town of Princeton. In all those years, she says she never closed for more than a week. But as cases of COVID-19 increase in Maine, she feels conflicted.

"I don't know whether I'm going to close. I'm still on the fence about that. I'm watching the news constantly checking for the CDC for updates," Theriault says. "It's really hard because we don't know from day to day what's going to happen. I'm on the fence as to what to do with our program here."

What Mainers Need To Know About The Coronavirus

While universities and K-12 schools across the state have closed, child care facilities have been left to decide on their own. In fact, Gov. Janet Mills singled out child care earlier this week when she declared the state's "civil emergency," saying that her administration was planning to pursue waivers to ensure child care capacity.

But in the wake of that announcement, child care operators, including Penni Theriault, are assessing what the spread of the virus could mean for their students, their community — and their own families.

"It's not a separate building, this is my home. And I've got my family's safety to think about," she says. "We adopted our little girl — her immune system isn't as great as what it should be. So I worry about that. I have a husband with Parkinson's. So I worry about his health. I have to think of those factors as well, because it is an in-home family child care."

But providers also have to think about how a shutdown would affect their finances, and those of their employees. Chrissie Davis, who runs Bouncing Bubbles Child Care in Skowhegan, says she has already had to send staff home, as many parents have removed their kids from the program in recent days.

"When you're the business owner, and your decision affects so many people, including myself, it's a tough one," she says. "We're natural caregivers. That's what we do for a living. That's who we are. And to say, 'I don't want to care for a child whose parent is out there working' — it feels wrong. But at the same time, it's balancing that with my needs and the children that would be here. It's hard, very hard.”

Child care organizations in Maine are now asking state leaders to support the industry in a number of ways. First, says Tara Williams of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children, by recommending the closure of most child care programs, and leaving some in operation to care for children of emergency responders and other essential workers.

“And if our state is talking about having goals of flattening the curve and community health, then closing of child care programs is, unfortunately, going to be part of what we need to do.”

The groups are also asking the state to help provide loans to child care operators, as well as access to funds to cover paid leave for staff.

"This situation right now is really kind of bringing to light, or exposing, some really long-time structural issues in the child care system," she says. "It's not that we're necessarily seeing new problems. It's just that we're seeing them more clearly when child care is needed in a time of emergency or time of crisis. So the lack of public funding. The fact that it operates in a way where it relies primarily on parents to be able to pay, puts it in a very difficult situation in a time like this.”

The state says that some steps have already been taken, including continued payments to child cares for children who had been subsidized. The state also says that child care providers are eligible for economic injury disaster loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

In a written statement, DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell says the department "recognizes the pressures Maine's child care providers face as a result of COVID-19" and continues to offer guidelines and support statewide, particularly as child care operators serve essential personnel.

"These parents live in communities all throughout Maine and must continue to have access to child care to perform their critical work," Farwell says. "The guidelines include reinforcing healthy hygiene, intensifying cleaning efforts and requiring sick children to stay home."

The Department estimates that statewide, about 20 percent of child cares have closed so far, as several organizations have begun working to fill child care needs for those essential personnel. Meagann Hamblett, the executive director of the YMCA Alliance of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, says that while several YMCAs have been forced to lay off staff over the past week, some have created small programs to offer child care for health care workers and others.

"We were asked to step up and to meet the needs of the community, where there were needs," Hamblett says. "And to work with the local CDC, local department of human services, our local town government and our local hospitals and healthcare organizations. So that's how each Y has gone about deciding how and what and where they would offer the child care programming."

Tara Williams says MAEYC will also be partnering with the state to put together a database of available child care providers for essential workers.

Penni Theriault in Princeton says she's planning to stay open for now. And she's staying extra vigilant, bleaching the floors each night, “and teaching the kids — like, we'll put stamps on their hands. They get a prize at the end of the day if they've washed the stamp off. To just teach them about the spread of germs. We're talking about that and just tell them that, you know, 'It's going to be okay.' You know, scary things happen, and it's okay, but they need to be able to talk to us. If they have questions, you need to answer them to the best of your ability, at their level.”

And Theriault says that while she is following proper social distancing guidelines, if a scared or anxious kid needs a hug, she'll still wrap her arms around them and comfort them.

You can hear more about the special challenges facing child care operators and the parents who depend on them on Maine Calling Monday, March 23.

Originally published 5:46 p.m. March 21, 2020