NORTH LIBERTY — Stuffed animals usually scattered around the Learning Begins Child Development Center are now packed in plastic bags and stored in the staff lounge.
It’s one of several sanitary precautions Laurie Benner took as spread of the novel coronavirus took hold this month in Johnson County and other parts of Iowa. Still, she’s lost 70 percent of her clientele, about 65 families, since the pandemic began.
“I still have kids, but I’m losing kids,” Benner said, adding she enrolled three children last week, all of health care workers. “I will only close down if the state tells me to close down.”
While Gov. Kim Reynolds has ordered many facilities to close — including all K-12 schools — she has encouraged both in-home child care providers and child care centers to remain operational. For parents who work in health care and other essential sectors, she has pitched opening “emergency day care centers” in empty facilities including schools.
Providers fear Demand dwindling
But many existing child care providers are eager to enroll those workers’ children, said Rep. Tracy Ehlert, D-Cedar Rapids, who cares for children in her home when she’s not at the Statehouse.
“Our current child care workforce is getting upset because they’re not full right now,” Ehlert said. “We need to take care of our existing child care providers or they won’t be there when this is over.”
Ehlert reopened her own in-home child care business two weeks ago when the Iowa Capitol building closed. School districts were announcing closures, and she quickly enrolled eight children. But as layoffs hit parents, and others began working from home, demand for child care dwindled quickly. By Wednesday, three of those children were still attending.
“It’s been a theme all across the state,” she said.
The Iowa Department of Human Services has published a map of existing child care providers, asking them to update their availability daily. But Ehlert said she worries the state’s numbers aren’t reflecting the attendance drop some facilities are experiencing.
State: Temp centers to increase access
Human Services spokesman Matt Highland said the temporary, emergency child care sites the state wants to open would be for school-aged students who otherwise don’t have access to child care.
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“We want people to rely on existing child care providers,” he said. “However, most of those providers don’t serve school-aged children — middle school or around fifth-grade age — which is really what the temporary emergency child care sites are supposed to do, fill in for parents whose kids would normally be in school.”
The state and counties are considering spaces that already have passed health and fire codes, like schools and YMCAs, to house the centers, he said, and are asking professional staff at those organizations to operate them because they have already passed background checks and other safety checks.
“We’re looking at where our medical infrastructure is and where a lot of our essential workforce is,” Highland said.
Some of the centers would not charge families for care, he said, though costs will likely vary across Iowa.
He said the state understands financial assistance for existing child care workers is “a huge concern.” The state started doling out child care assistance March 14 based on enrollment rather than attendance, but providers who serve families that don’t qualify for state subsidies have not received additional resources to help them stay afloat.
Jobless aid not available for some
Becca English, an in-home provider for children under 5 and president of the Cedar Rapids Family Home Child Care Association, doesn’t expect any assistance to come her way.
“I’ve been through the flood of 2008, I had 7 feet of water in my house and it was a struggle to get any type of assistance,” English said. “I have no intention of closing my doors, not unless I get sick.”
English said she wouldn’t be eligible for unemployment benefits unless the state forced her to close, if she or someone in her household was diagnosed with coronavirus or if a doctor barred her from caring for children.
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She’s cleaning deeper and more often, she said, and trying to keep parents outside during drop-off to prevent any spread.
“I think I’ve lost the whole top layer of skin off my hands, and every single one of my hands is cracked open,” English said. “I’m using bleach and water in spray bottles. I’ve always had a routine of cleaning, but it’s been that extra deep clean.”
Her attendance has remained relatively steady as the pandemic has swept through Iowa. Just one of her families is keeping their child home so far, she said, but her contract stipulates families pay full-price regardless of attendance.
That’s common, Ehlert said, though some programs have dropped to half-price tuition or waived costs — which can be a huge financial risk for the provider.
“I’m really worried about losing in-homes after this,” Ehlert said. “They’re upset they’re not being treated right. Some are very angry, and others are just going to realize, if this happens again, they don’t have the financial means to get through this again. We’re going to lose some, and we already have a shortage.”
While the state coordinates with the Iowa City Community School District to potentially turn its facilities into temporary child care spaces, providers like Benner — whose center is the only one in North Liberty with after-hours care and opened just months ago — hope they won’t be forgotten.
“They’re hurting the providers that are already open and wanting to enroll essential workers’ kids,” she said. “But we can’t fight the state, they can do whatever they want. I think that hurts the other providers and day care centers if they open that.”
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