A look at daycare challenges during a pandemic

By Blake Spurney

NEWTON — First Family Child Care owner Courtney Cantrell said federal relief money had been a lifesaver to those in the daycare business.

She said a $1,200 grant she received through the Coronavirus Aid, Recovery and Economic Security Act was almost exhausted and she’s considering raising her rates in the spring.

Cantrell said the biggest impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on child care services had come from the price gouging of cleaning supplies. A case of gloves that used to cost $20 now cost more than $80.

“That’s the only way we’re able to make it with those price increases,” she said. “That’s the only way we’ve been able to stay afloat.”

Child care services already are in short supply in Newton, especially for infants. Lisa Smith, director of Doodlebug Daycare, said she received calls every day from parents looking for a provider. She often gets calls from expectant parents, but she likely won’t have room until her current group of nine children goes off to kindergarten.

Cantrell, who had 105 children before the pandemic, said at one time she had a waiting list of 14 babies she couldn’t accept.

“We have people who find out they’re pregnant and call us that morning,” she said. “We get that a lot.” She’s even received a call from a couple undergoing in vitro fertilization.

Infants also cost nearly double the rate for daycare. Smith said accepting an infant was like bringing in two toddlers.

“A lot of that is because the state really hammers how many kids you can have,” she said. If she accepts one child, the number of children she can accept drops from nine to six.

Cantrell said state regulations required one caregiver for every three infants. Infant rates are higher to offset the extra staff and overhead.

“They don’t generate any profit for your business…and they’re a lot of work,” she said.

Pepper Stephey, owner of BrightStar Discovery Center, said business had remained steady outside of the 1-1/2 weeks she had to shut down earlier this year. Even with a lot of parents working from home, she has maintained a census of about 30 children.

That doesn’t mean that caring for other people’s children has been easy. Stephey said she checked children’s temperatures at the door and parents are not allowed inside the building. Young children don’t understand the concept of social distancing.

“It is very difficult,” she said. “We have a lot of siblings here in different classrooms. So, it’s kind of hard to social distance from each other.”

Smith said parents of the children under her care rang a doorbell and then their children are let outside. She said parents had been great about the situation. She’s had a couple of parents who had to quarantine and she assured other parents that those in quarantine hadn’t been around other children or staff.

“I could confidently say your child has not been exposed,” she said.

Smith said the state didn’t hand down a lot of extra regulations during the pandemic because they’re already pretty stringent. The toys just get sanitized more regularly, now.

“We already wash our hands constantly, so that wasn’t really any big change,” she said.

Cantrell said her business wasn’t affected for seven months. Then, in October, a family in quarantine brought a child to the center. She had to close down for two weeks and some parents pulled their children out of First Family Child Care.

“So, we kind of got blamed for that,” she said. She added that the Harvey County Health Department was not pleased with how one family put the entire center at risk. The number of children dropped from 105 to 70. Twenty-two employees were left without a paycheck.

Cantrell said many of the parents using her center were in the health care field, so working from home isn’t an option for them. Those parents also get tested regularly.

“It is kind of a high risk, but I feel they are the most educated and they know how to protect themselves better than anyone else,” she said.

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