'It's a dire situation': York County child care open to essential workers, despite risks

Behind front-line responders to the coronavirus — the health care workers, police, firefighters, bank tellers and postal workers — are the child care centers that are staying open to serve the essential workers' children.

Outside toys are brought in plastic bags, nap blankets are washed on site and temperatures are taken before a child sets foot in the door.

"You're in intimate contact with children nine to 10 hours a day," Diane Barber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Child Care Association, said of the risks staff members are taking. 

"You're helping to feed them. You're changing their diapers. You're helping them to wash their hands," she added.

Although it's a risk, 725 of the state’s 7,000-plus child care facilities, including group and family centers, as of Wednesday were approved and are operating on waivers to remain open — only to the children of those essential personnel.

"It's a dire situation," said Ruby Martin, chief child and youth programs officers at YWCA York. "We know a lot of families are desperate for child care right now."

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There were 14 York County providers within a 10-mile radius of York listed as open in a database from the state's Department of Human Services.

However, that list is subject to change.

In fact, Jeanne Herman, director of Rainbow Junction Child Care Center in West Manchester Township — which is listed in the database — said she received a waiver but ultimately decided to close, as her center would have only been serving six children.

"We just thought it would be in the best interest of everyone to do our part to mitigate the spread and stay home," she said.

Jeanne Herman, director of Rainbow Junction Child Care Center, in West Manchester Township, with York Revolution mascot DownTown. Herman is also a school board member in West York Area School District.

Many of her essential worker families had already created contingency plans and found alternatives or care at home — and the others were willing to do the same, Herman said.

Jen DeBell, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children, said some centers with multiple locations choose to reduce to one site, such as whichever is closest to a hospital.

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The York JCC had several locations in the database, but Heather Miller, director of children’s education and development, said she is waiting for the crisis to peak before opening to avoid putting staff and children at more risk.

Other facilities have closed across the state because they can't pay staff or are worried about liability, DeBell said.

Colton Shupp, 3, runs with a kite as children play outside at Weigelstown Child Care Center, Thursday, April 2, 2020. The day care has been permitted to stay open during the Governor's shutdown due to the high number of essential employee parents they serve.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Weigelstown Child Care — a family-owned business in Dover Township — had to condense from two buildings to one and lay off a lot of staff members, said Jen Yerges, director of children up to age 5.

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Enrollment is about half of what it used to be, but Yerges said families have been supportive — many who are not attending have paid ahead to help out.

"Programs that serve 100 children are now serving 25 children," Barber said.

DeBell said the state will pay income-based subsidies through April 30, and she is advocating for that to be extended for the duration of the crisis, but even subsidies are not enough to sustain businesses without family co-pays.

Many providers have a mix of state subsidized and private pay — the latter of which makes up 75% of total child care pay in the state.

On top of that, if a lawsuit is pursued from a child getting sick at an operating center, DeBell said it could be financially devastating.

"We're pretty worried that we could see some massive closures across the state," she said.

The other concern is losing employees who are staying home. Martin, in talking to other child care directors across the state, found that a lot of staff are not comfortable going to work given the health risks.

Ruby Martin shows off her Rising STARS Award during the Crispus Attucks 35th annual Cultural Thanksgiving Celebration, Monday,  November 19, 2018. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

Child care providers across the state have been facing the most severe staffing shortages in decades, Barber said. 

Wages are extremely low — less than $10 an hour on average — and companies such as Giant and Amazon are increasing salaries and providing an option with less of a health risk.

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If child care providers lose employees to other opportunities, there's a fear they won't get them back, she said.

The state Department of Human Services has released guidelines for safe operations, such as maintaining approved child-staff ratios, keeping children in groups 6 feet apart and in similar groups day-to-day, limited sharing and encouraging outdoor play.

The Office of Child Development and Early Learning was unaware of any cases of the virus in child care centers as of March 27.

Since information is coming in from multiple sources, DHS is working on a data governance process to ensure information released is accurate, said department press secretary Erin James, when reached Wednesday.

DeBell said she has a thermometer at home that can be used without touching the forehead, and she believes other providers have similar options.

Barber added that by taking temperatures of staff and children multiple times a day, it's possible to keep a record of change, and sometimes catch things quicker than parents.

The biggest change in service is for infants, who are now required to each be with only one staff member instead of a 1:4 ratio, since they are at a higher risk.

“It has been a day-to-day, week-to-week adjustment,” Yerges said.

"We make sure to have activities to keep the children busy. like different hands-on art activities, active games, learning time, outside and free play," she said.

Older children understand better than younger ones, who can pose more of a challenge.

"They're kids, they're little children," Barber said. "This is kind of a developmental stage where they put things in their mouth."