As child care options dwindle during COVID-19, parents are left scrambling

Kristi Palmer and her kids in front of their home in Overland Park. Palmer has been trying to balance her job teaching middle school with caring for her young kids. Photo credit Chase Castor/The Beacon.

By Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian

In the midst of a busy workday filled with online meetings, presentations, and childcare, daily walks outside have become a highlight for Crystal Everett, her husband, Marquis, and their 2-year-old daughter, Mari. It’s one of the ways the couple has tried to maintain normalcy in an abnormal time.

“It really is almost impossible to give 40 hours a week to your job, take care of a toddler and just kind of deal with the situation of the world,” said Crystal, the Real World Learning Coordinator for Kansas City Public Schools.

Marquis, Crystal and Mari Everett on the front stoop of their apartment in Kansas City. Photo credit Chase Castor/The Beacon.

For many parents, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted any semblance of a normal workday. With day cares temporarily closing down because of the pandemic, parents like the Everetts are now tasked with juggling full-time childcare with full-time jobs.

Robin Phillips, CEO of Child Care Aware of Missouri, said that only 60 percent of all day cares in the state have reported their status post-COVID-19. Of those, 40 percent have closed.

According to Child Care Aware of Missouri, 175 centers have closed out of the 342 in Jackson County that have reported their status since the pandemic began. Thirty-eight have not reported their status. In Johnson County, only 211 of the 493 licensed centers have reported their status, according to Child Care Aware of Kansas. Of those reporting, 169 centers remain open.

Before Kansas City’s stay-at-home order hit, Crystal was taking Mari to St. Mark’s in Kansas City; United Inner City Services has since closed both its St. Mark and Metro Centers in the city, which together care for about 230 children on a daily basis. Deidre Anderson, CEO of United Inner Ctiy Services, said it was a tough decision, but necessary to protect the community at large.

Anderson notes that UICS mostly serves African American and Hispanic families living in the 3rd District, which has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Kansas City.

“There’s a higher incidence of COVID among black and brown people, who have higher rates of diabetes, asthma — and I’m not talking mild asthma — kidney disease and other chronic conditions,” she says. “We have a very vulnerable population.”

According to Child Care Aware of America, only Rhode Island has completely shut down day care centers during the pandemic, while many states are allowing exceptions for them to remain open for essential personnel only. Kansas and Missouri are among 29 states allowing day care centers to operate with no exceptions, though municipalities can dictate at the local level whether they can serve everyone or just essential personnel.

Phillips says the pandemic has brought childcare to the forefront of a lot of conversations.

“Childcare has never really been considered an industry, so when you look for guidance for industries it’s not at the top of the list,” she says. “They’re individual business owners, so they’re not part of a system with a coordinated financial program in place, which makes it hard to find supplies, PPE and cost of paying for business each day. They can’t even get their hands on thermometers because of the shortage.”

According to the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, there was a shortage of day cares in Kansas and Missouri even before the coronavirus hit. The study found that 54 percent of Missouri residents live in a child care desert compared to 44 percent of Kansans. In Missouri, the biggest shortages exist in rural areas, where 70 percent of residents are without access to a child care center. In Kansas, 63 percent of people living in a child care desert are low-income, and African Americans and Latinos disproportionately live in child care deserts.

‘They don’t know what personal space means’

Preschool age children are like petri dishes: They stick their hands in their mouths, wipe their runny noses with their sticky fingers and then touch each other and anything else within reach.

Yet, they are either contracting COVID-19 at much lower rates than adults, not getting as critically ill from it or are asymptomatic all together. Data collected by the Centers for Disease Control found that children under age 5 made up a tiny fraction of the thousands of nationwide hospitalizations for COVID-19 during a four-week period in March.

So far, only one of 452 confirmed cases in Johnson County was a child under the age of 10. Kansas City’s confirmed cases were similar, with only 5 of its 520 confirmed cases under age 12. The bad news, however, is that children can still pass the virus to others.

Open day care centers are taking steps to protect their clients and staff by following government guidelines. Kansas City stipulates in its stay-at-home order that child care centers create groups of the same 10 or fewer children with the same caregivers each day. Each group should be in a separate room and not mix with other groups. Open centers are also quizzing parents daily about any possible COVID-19 symptoms in their families.

Social distancing among children is recommended too, though enforcing it is like herding cats.

“That’s impossible. They don’t know what personal space means,” says Lacy Johnson, assistant director of Kids R Kids in Olathe, Kan., which is still open.

To comply with social distancing rules, the day care’s staff is having parents drop children off in the lobby before a teacher takes them into the classroom. At the end of the day, teachers bring them outside to their cars. In the hours in between, teachers social distance from each other, preach handwashing to the children incessantly and repeatedly disinfect surfaces.

They are also crossing their fingers that they don’t contract COVID-19. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, day care workers typically make just over $11 an hour, and many don’t get health care benefits. It’s another issue Phillips with Child Care Aware would like to see resolved. She notes that members of Show Me Child Care Resources are eligible for virtual doctors visits for basic health issues.

“But that’s still not the full-on health benefits that I or my staff get, and these are individual small business owners so it’s up to them to purchase coverage for themselves and staff, who barely make a living wage,” Phillips says.

‘It’s not a situation that many of us have experienced before’

Meanwhile, parents are scrambling to figure out how to juggle work with childcare, whatever form that may be.

Kristi Palmer, a middle school teacher from Kansas City, hopes each day that she’ll get through her online faculty and student meetings without her 3-year-old daughter Stella yelling that she has to go potty. Maddy Stimec of Olathe worries that her 9-month-old son Asher is climbing the stairs at home while she’s admitting patients to the emergency room at Saint Luke’s Hospital. Her husband does all he can to keep an eye on the increasingly mobile tot, but he’s often working from home while she’s gone.

To deal with the stresses caused and exacerbated by the pandemic, Everett says parents should extend themselves more grace for handling an unprecedented situation.

“It’s not a situation that many of us have experienced before,” Crystal said.  “There’s a reason why people go into education, specifically early education, because that’s their expertise. That’s their passion. And parents having to transition to being a substitute for that is very hard.”

Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian is a freelance reporter for The Beacon. Celisa Calacal contributed to this report.

The Beacon is an online news outlet based in Kansas City focused on local, in-depth journalism in the public interest.