We understand the MSDE was scrambling, too. Our first action was to cancel the first-aid training set for that evening after the center closed, and we canceled picture day scheduled for Friday.
MSDE then sent surveys on whether we would remain open and sent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on universal precautions. The governor enacted an executive order to expand child care so that medical workers in need would have a place for their children to go. The Office of Child Care temporarily relaxed regulations so we could accommodate more students.
We decided to remain open. That decision was based on two factors: (1) We have parents who are essential personnel and must work, so they need child care; and (2) If we were to close, what would that mean for tuition? How would we pay our staff or even financially survive?
That weekend, in anticipation of staying open, my husband and I changed air filters and disinfected the air ducts and items in the classroom. Our cleaning company aggressively cleaned with bleach. On Monday, we opened, not knowing what to expect. More than half of our students attended. While we were overstaffed, we used this opportunity to deep-clean everything. I do mean everything. Classroom chairs were taken outside and bleached. Carpets were shampooed. Classroom toys, computers and furniture were all disinfected. We then instituted a policy that after busy morning drop-off and pickup times, the common area check-in station would be sanitized twice a day. We hung signs on the doors asking anyone who has a cough or is feeling ill not to enter the center. We made a policy to not allow in any outside visitors.
On Tuesday, our attendance dropped again. We were now serving about a third of our students. Our families who are essential personnel stopped by to thank us for staying open, saying they don’t know what they would have done if we were not here. Some of our parents are actively working on the coronavirus response at the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Health and Human Services task force. Others are police, FBI, Defense Department or hospital employees. Some work in the trades — if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. We have many students of county schoolteachers.
Uncertainty reigned. We got emails and calls asking whether families still had to pay if they didn’t bring their students. The answer is yes, as stated in our enrollment agreement: You are paying for your child’s placement regardless of missed days. That’s how we pay our staff, after all. Our policy has always been that if a family is experiencing a financial hardship, we would work with them through their crisis. But how could we do that if we are all in the same crisis?
At night, I lay awake with anxiety trying to decide if we were doing the right thing. How do you balance serving children and fear for the children or staff being exposed to the virus and keeping our business afloat if we decide to close? I’m sure staff members grappled with same issues.
By the end of March, after the governor expanded the length of the school closure and announced that child-care centers could serve only the children of essential personnel, a third of our families had withdrawn, putting our financials at risk. We’ve now had to furlough some of our employees, advising them to file for unemployment and telling them we hoped they would come back when the pandemic passes. We’ve applied for small-business loans, but the help is minimal.
I was happy to see national advocates take these issues to Congress. We have participated in surveys and signed on to letters. A survey conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children of 6,000 child-care providers revealed that 30 percent would not survive a closure of more than two weeks and an additional 16 percent would not survive longer than a month.
I am sure many child-care and early-learning centers will face bankruptcy because of this. We have an extensive wait list and are calling those on it, but families are reconsidering their need for child care.
We are not sure what is ahead. We are taking it day by day and anticipate it will get worse before getting better. The early-education workforce now shares the term of first responders. Don’t let us be forgotten in decisions made on health and financial issues.