Child care workers are facing a dilemma. They aren’t sure if they should continue going to work, where they are consistently exposed to many illnesses, possibly including the coronavirus.
But if they stay home, they risk losing a paycheck, or a future job. Should they look out for their communities by offering care for the children of those who have to work, or should they look out for their own families?
It’s a daily struggle for many of Washington’s nearly 7,900 child care workers. Most facilities around the state are remaining open at the encouragement of the Department of Children, Youth, and Families, which offered guidance on its website “to stay open as feasible to meet the needs of children and families.” Others are staying open and continuing to charge fees, even as significant numbers of parents pull their kids out.
Late Wednesday, national child care chain Bright Horizons decided to close most of its centers by the end of the week until April 27. It will keep some centralized centers open. In a letter to employees, workers were given the option to continue working for increased pay at a nearby center if it is possible or to work through the company’s backup in-home caregivers program. Others will receive two weeks’ of pay and benefits.
Independent child care providers are making similar choices. Tiffany Pearsall runs the nonprofit child care center Play Frontier in rural Skamania County.
“We talked a long time about the best decision — should we keep open to keep the economy going, so parents can work?” she said, referring to conversations with Play Frontier’s nonprofit board. But many of her teachers said they wanted to stay home because of health concerns and fewer kids were coming in anyway. “On Sunday it became clear we had to choose health over wealth. Closing was helping people self-isolate more.”
Child care staffers still working this week have expressed serious concerns about their health. Many of them who spoke to The Times asked to do so anonymously because they are concerned about losing their jobs if they speak up.
They said children cough directly into their faces, especially when they are changing diapers or putting them down for naps. “Other than gloves and bleach solution, we have not been directed by the state to wear any other sort of protective gear, such as the masks worn by health care professionals.”
Others said the state-recommended sanitation measures for sanitizing surfaces aren’t sufficient in a child care setting. They frequently disinfect toys and blocks, but children consistently put them into their mouths. “We do our best but kids aren’t the best about maintaining hygiene,” said one worker. “Little kids like to touch things.”
They said their employers ask them to screen for symptoms of COVID-19 before allowing any children or adults into the building, but people can carry the virus without showing symptoms.
“For my part,” wrote one teacher, “most of the teachers I work with are downright terrified.”
The state’s Department of Health issued new guidelines this week, which suggested having kids do activities together in groups of 10 or less — and keeping those groups consistent from day-to-day. They recommend staggering pickups, drop-offs and meals to avoid having many people in one area.
Some child care centers have taken more proactive steps to reduce the spread of germs. They’re limiting group activities, putting away soft toys that cannot frequently be cleaned and no longer letting children share food.
Despite these new precautions, some workers are still concerned. “If we want to pay our bills we have to take a bus/train, be around sick people, risk being infected and come to work,” one person wrote.
Child care workers can only file for unemployment if they are officially laid off or if their employers apply for the SharedWork Program through the Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD). That program supplements pay for workers who get their hours reduced. If workers decide to quit their jobs because they feel unsafe, ESD will determine eligibility for unemployment benefits on a case-by-case basis.
Under the new emergency COVID-19 rules regarding unemployment benefits, if a person is immune-compromised and advised to self-quarantine then they could qualify for unemployment. If they are choosing to self-distance, they do not.
Nick Demerice, ESD public affairs director, said he cannot give advice on whether or not people should leave their jobs. However, “it’s a super dynamic situation and things are changing all the time, on eligibility and process,” he said. “Even if they don’t qualify now, keep an eye on the website and see what changes.”
The National Association for the Education of Young Children supports closing most child care centers during the COVID-19 pandemic for public health reasons and only providing care for essential workers. However, in a recent survey the association conducted, most of over 6,000 providers nationwide reported that if they close their doors, they will need significant support to keep paying employees and other costs.
Some providers rely on state-funded child care subsidies. Many providers wanted to know if they will still get the subsidies if they have to close for any length of time. In a statement the Department of Children, Youth, and Families recorded for child care providers, director of eligibility and provider supports Nicole Rose said, “We are actively exploring those questions and answers.”
Back in Skamania County, Pearsall stood in her now empty preschool, chopping up the bananas she had already purchased for her students that week. She spent hundreds of dollars on fresh produce, and she’s not sure if she’ll be reimbursed by the federal food program.
As her son and her dog played in the empty classroom, he asked her, “Mama, where are all the kids?”