Child care facilities face uncertainties as fall approaches

Some child care centers are facing new challenges due to the coronavirus
Published: Aug. 4, 2020 at 10:30 PM CDT
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DEFOREST, Wis. (WMTV) - As school districts throughout southern Wisconsin begin to roll out their back to school decisions, many child care facilities are facing a less certain future.

Macy Buhler is the owner and director of Yahara River Learning Center in DeForest. She’s been serving children of essential workers during the pandemic.

"We have parents who work in the hospitals, we have parents who work in news, we have parents who work in food industry and transportation," she said. "We knew that we wanted those children to have a stable place through the stressful part of that."

Buhler said they requested parents who were not essential workers to keep their children home, and said the parents they serve were respectful, enabling the center to stay open with a much smaller group for the essential working families.

That smaller group is a necessity due to countywide coronavirus mandates.

"Being in Stage 2 in Dane County means we can only have groups of 15. That limits especially our older kids, our 4-K programs," Buhler said. "We're trying to look at that as well as what does that mean for our school-aged children and whether we'll have room and capcity for all the kids that have signed up or are interested. It's going to be capacity with the limitations."

According to guidance from Public Health Madison & Dane County, during Phase 2 of the Forward Dane plan, groups or classrooms in childcare settings cannot be larger than 15 children if the children are 12 years old and younger.

Buhler said she feels lucky to be able to work with public health officials to navigate the pandemic.

In addition to a limit placed on the number of children Buhler can have in each room, coronavirus has also altered other daily routines. Buhler said they have windows and doors open for fresh air at the center, air purifiers in the classrooms, and have replaced natural material baskets with plastics for easier cleaning, among other efforts.

Those efforts, however, don't come without additional costs, in addition to a reduced amount of students.

"Our numbers are down, our costs are significantly higher," she said. "Income's down, costs are higher, like I said it's a week to week, day to day type of thing."

This new reality leaves Buhler facing an uncertain future. There's a cap on the amount of kids she can serve, less income is coming in, and higher expenses to buy the materials needed to keep her center clean.

That uncertainty is something many child care centers and families are feeling, according to Jody Bartnick, executive director of 4-C, a child care resource and referral agency. Bartnick said especially as districts begin making decisions about what the school year will look like, virtual learning could put many families in a tough spot.

“We are getting questions from parents, there’s a lot of concern right now,” she said. “I think one of the unintended consequences of virtual learning is many parents do not have the option to stay home during the day or to even work at home. Now they’re faced with paying for full time child care for a school aged child during the week. There’s also a capacity issue. We’re not sure there’s enough child care to go around to serve school-agers during the day.”

Bartnick also said that because many child care facilities are privately owned, many are facing financial challenges.

"They don't then have another financial system to fall back on when they number one, can't get enough enrollment because families are choosing not to enroll their children, for a lot of reasons, and of course respected reasons, but then they also don't have the capacity sometimes to care of the number of school agers that are now being asked of them to do to pick up the pieces from the virtual school decisions," Bartnick said.

Bartnick said she said there also exists a larger underlying philosophical debate about the importance of the child care system.

"I think it's just kind of that prioritizing the importance of how we look at early care and education, and as a society we really need to value them as a very important component to the learning system," she said. "Early learning is so critical. We are hearing that, we're hearing what is going to happen to us and how are folks, how are businesses, how is the state, how is the community going to support us through the pandemic right now?"

Buhler said she's seen firsthand how the current environment is affecting the children she works with.

"We're all just trying to take deep breaths and try to keep a calm, safe space," Buhler said. "It's not easy. It's not easy as an owner trying to keep my finances as well as my supplies as well as my staff in one place and calm enough that we can continue."

Now, Buhler waits to see what the fall will look like.

“Can I meet all the parents’ needs and will I see a withdrawal because of that?” she asked. “That’s my concern right now, I have these people who are signed up for the fall but will that happen, I don’t know.”

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