Nacole Thrower was running late, and her 3-year-old son was still snuggled in his sheets, his limbs sticking to the mattress.

“Hudson, time to get up. Hudson,” Thrower said. She lifted her half-sleeping toddler and carried him to the bathroom. He sat on a stepping stool, his eyes still mostly closed, and brushed his teeth.

It was just before 7 a.m., on a rainy weekday in April. Things were quiet in their apartment building, a 12-story complex near North Capitol Street, east of downtown. Many of her neighbors — retail workers and security guards and administrative employees — no longer had jobs to get up for.

But Thrower, a 41-year-old single mom, was still going into work at George Washington University Hospital, where she is a patient service specialist, scheduling and checking in patients for appointments in the OB/GYN department.

That meant she needed someone to watch Hudson. So every morning, she piled him into the car and trudged him across the city, through the mostly empty streets of downtown, to Marie Reed Elementary in Adams Morgan, one of six emergency child-care facilities opened by the District last month for the kids of essential health-care workers.

It wasn’t easy, deciding to send him during a pandemic.

“Your child has to be around child care workers, and you don’t know where they have been,” Thrower said. “But, at the same time, I don’t have the option to say I am not coming to work.” 

She could send him to her sister’s house, where he’d be safe and fed, but his aunt doesn’t have the time, or the tools, to help Hudson keep his crucial preschool learning on track. At Marie Reed, where Hudson’s tuition is covered by the city, the workers help him complete homework packets that his KIPP DC charter school assigned him.

“He has more stimulation,” Thrower said. “He’s very active. He can run around, and he can play.”

So they go. Hudson’s resistance this morning had her running 30 minutes late.

“What did mommy say about touching things?” she asked as they mobilized.

She put on her gloves and mask and got in the elevator. Then she put Hudson’s mask on. It’s an adult-sized one that she picked up at the hospital. She twisted the strings and wrapped them around his ears.

“Keep it on, Hudson, until we get to the car.”

The drove to Marie Reed, an easy 10 minutes these days, half her usual commute. Parking in Adams Morgan, during what should be rush hour: no problem.

“Hey, Hudson,” the staff members said as they approached the school. A woman lifted his green-dinosaur shirt and slipped a thermometer under his arm: 97.6 degrees.

Thrower signed Hudson in at the security guard’s table, which was armed with Lysol wipes and hand sanitizer. Then straight to the sink to wash their hands.

That’s something Hudson’s good at, something that helps ease Thrower’s stress about leaving him during the day: He knows to count to 20 when he washes his hands, even when Mom is not around. He washes his hands so much that she packs a container of cocoa butter in his backpack, to give his dry skin some relief during the day.

Before all this, when Thrower dropped Hudson off at his regular school, she walked him in and kissed him goodbye. Nowadays, she tries not to kiss him much. Only small hugs. She waved and said goodbye.

'In a way, I'm giving back'

A few hours later, just before noon, Hudson was sitting at a low-slung table in his classroom, draped in a blue smock, painting a rock that he collected on a walk.

A woman walked in, clutching a clipboard.

“Let’s take Hudson’s temperature,” she said.

That was Juliet Wright-Fuller. Fifty-two, with a colorful mask around her neck and her hair pulled tight into a bun, Wright-Fuller works for United Planning Organization, a nonprofit that runs child-care centers throughout the city. The center she usually runs, near her home in Southeast, is federally funded, so even thought it closed last month, she was still collecting a paycheck. She was at home, with her retired husband, quarantining like so much of the city.

Then, one morning, her boss called: Would she operate one of the city’s emergency centers?

“At first, I was like, ‘Maybe, let me think about it,’ ” she said.

She asked her husband what she should do. If she took the job, he said, she’d have to change out of her work clothes as soon as she got home in the afternoons. She asked one of her adult sons, too; he’s a custodian who still takes public transportation to work. He assured her she could report to work safely. She just needed to be cautious, he said.

She took the job.

“There is a virus going around, some people are dying, and this is what I love to do. How can I make sure I am going to be safe?” Wright-Fuller said. “Without us, they won’t be able to do their job. In a way, I’m giving back. I am helping someone get to work.”

Wright-Fuller does what she can to keep herself safe: Washes her hands regularly. Takes her temperature each day. Wears a mask outside and when interacting with families. There are sinks, Lysol wipes and hand sanitizer scattered across the school.

But these are young children during a stressful pandemic, and she’s been doing early child-care for more than 20 years. There’s only so much socially distancing she can do.

“We still give hugs,” she said. “Every child needs that. Every child needs a rub on the back. We still have to give that to them.”

Still, her days look drastically different than they did before. For starters, there are only a few kids. District officials have approved nearly 100 families to use these sites, but only around 10 kids show up most days, and they’re spread across six sites. At Marie Reed, sometimes it’s three children, and sometimes it’s just Hudson.

Bright Beginning Children’s Learning Center in Maryland wants to stay open for children of essential workers, but a lack of revenue has meant major layoffs. (The Washington Post)

The District expects more families to take advantage of the sites if infection rates surge in the coming weeks. The city is also considering expanding eligibility for the sites, to help more working families whose day cares have closed.

But for now, it’s almost empty. The large preschool classroom — outfitted with books, a toy kitchen and indoor playground equipment — is quieter than usual. The playgrounds are shuttered. To get outside, Wright-Fuller and her staff take walks with the kids in the neighborhood. Sometimes they collect rocks.

And throughout the day, Wright-Fuller makes sure to update the spreadsheet where she meticulously charts the temperature of each child and staff member.

A teacher walked Hudson from the table to a nearby chair. He flipped through “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” not paying much attention as the teacher put a thermometer in his armpit.

Wright-Fuller noted the result, 98.5, then followed the teacher as she walked Hudson to wash his hands.

“What song do you want to sing this time, Hudson?” Wright-Fuller asked. “ ‘Row, row your boat?’ Or count to 20?”

Preparing for a hug

Thrower’s shift at the hospital was eight hours that day. She spent it on the phone with new moms, making appointments for their first checkups, and with expecting ones, scheduling ultrasounds. She directs more patients to virtual appointments with their doctors these days, but she still interacts with 50 to 100 patients every shift, she said, collecting their insurance cards and IDs.

She left work after 5 p.m., and — 10 minutes of driving, easy parking again — arrived back at Marie Reed just before 5:30.

Thrower doesn’t wear scrubs at work, so before she entered the school, she sprayed her clothes with Lysol, the same Early Morning Breeze scent she uses on Hudson’s car seat. Just a light misting, so Hudson wasn’t overwhelmed by the chemicals. She wanted to be ready in case he decided to hug her.

“He’ll start crying: ‘Mommy, give me a hug,’ ” she said. “That hurts, when I can’t give him a hug right away.”

On this day, though, Hudson was distracted by “Peppa Pig,” which was flickering his tablet.

“Hudson, are you ready to go?” she said, but he wasn’t budging. “Okay, I’m going. Goodbye.”

She squeezed hand sanitizer into both of their hands. Hudson, still entranced by the animated family of British pigs, rubbed his hands together, and then, clearly annoyed, shook the excess sanitizer from his hands.

Say goodbye, Thrower told him, and he said goodbye. His teachers waved.

It was only Monday. They’d be back tomorrow. Thrower pulled the mask over Hudson’s face, twisting the strings around his ears, and they walked.