Sandy Thielen is still hesitant to reopen her home daycare business after closing at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She misses the kids and the day-to-day routine of the job, she says, but she’s concerned for the safety of her family. Having 10 extra children around, plus their parents at drop-off and pick-up times, ups her own family's odds of being exposed to the virus.

“My mother lives with us, and both me and my mother have diabetes … and my son and husband both have asthma, so it was just too much of a risk for me to stay open,” Thielen says.

The Detroit Lakes provider is still in contact with her daycare families, and would like to reopen soon, but with COVID cases on the rise and the possibility of schools remaining closed this fall, she’s not sure she’ll be able to.

“I have two kids of my own that would be attending school, so I’d be splitting my time between helping them (with their online learning) and 10 other kids,” she says. “That’s going to be nearly impossible.”

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She’s not alone in that thought. Jethe Winter, another Detroit Lakes in-home daycare provider, has three kids of her own, ages 8 to 15, and she says she might have to make some adjustments to her business model if schools don’t reopen.

Winter normally runs her daycare “more like a pre-preschool,” she says, but that level of instruction may need to be relaxed if she’s also trying to help her own kids with their schoolwork. She may decide to be open on only an “as-needed” basis, accepting fewer kids than usual, with preference given to the children of essential workers.

“A lot of daycare providers around here have kids, and if we’re doing online schooling, how are we supposed to help our children through this as well as run a child care?,” she asks. “A couple of providers have told me that they would stop providing care if schools don’t reopen, because they just feel like they can’t do both. I’m afraid what’s going to happen is we’re going to end up losing a lot of providers.”

So far in Becker County, five licensed family child care providers have closed because of the pandemic, bringing the total number of those providers to 67, according to Denise Warren, Becker County Human Services Director. The Minnesota Department of Human Services notes that this number does not reflect any providers who may have stopped operating but have not permanently closed their licenses. It also does not include any legal non-licensed providers who have stopped providing care.

For a county that was already more than 600 child care slots short before the pandemic, any losses at all are bad news, resulting in even fewer options for working families with young kids.

Child care centers in Becker County, meanwhile, have all remained open, reports the DHS, and preschools appear to have all remained open, as well. A request made to the state Department of Education for more information about preschools was not fulfilled by press time, but no local providers or child care agencies interviewed for this story were aware of any preschool closures.

The impact on providers

Shoes sit on racks outside the classrooms at Laker Prep, where kids switch out their "home" shoes every morning, and again at pick-up time, with a special pair of shoes that stay at the school 24/7, an effort to keep germs from home out of the classrooms. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)
Shoes sit on racks outside the classrooms at Laker Prep, where kids switch out their "home" shoes every morning, and again at pick-up time, with a special pair of shoes that stay at the school 24/7, an effort to keep germs from home out of the classrooms. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)

Whether in-home or center-based, closed or open, all child care programs have been impacted by COVID-19.

New guidelines on cleaning and sanitizing have been established, as have strict rules about kids staying home when sick. Most daycares have adapted their pick-up and drop-off routines to meet social distancing guidelines, and require adults to wear a mask during in-person interactions. Some kids are wearing masks, as well.

Everybody’s washing their hands more often, and the kids are playing outside as much as possible.

Then there’s the social and emotional aspect. All the new rules and feelings of isolation can take a toll on kids (and teachers), and that must be handled appropriately, too.

Fran Rethwisch, the Early Childhood Family Education/School Readiness Coordinator for the Detroit Lakes School District and the Community Collaboratives Manager for MAHUBE-OTWA Community Action Partnership-Head Start, said there have been, and continue to be, a variety of special training opportunities to help providers tackle the issues surrounding COVID. She said a number of local and regional agencies, including the Becker County Early Childhood Initiative, child care association, West Central Initiative, Head Start, Sourcewell and MAHUBE-OTWA, among others, have been working together to provide extra support during the pandemic.

There have been free webinars, for example, on topics like self care, cleaning and “Talking to Kids about COVID-19.” There have also been organized distributions of free cleaning supplies to any providers who need them. There are scheduled Zoom conversations every week, covering a wide range of topics for providers, as well as other regular meetings and events to help keep everyone connected and informed.

Some extra funding sources have opened up, as well. West Central Initiative, for example, recently awarded 42 child care grants to providers in Becker County, totaling $46,000, and is planning another round of grants this fall. Family child care providers were eligible to receive $1,000, while centers could receive $3,000.

Nancy Jost, the initiative's director of early childhood, said it was up to the providers to decide how that money would be used: “Whether it was to pay their rent or mortgage to stay open, whether it was paying electricity bills, or for food for the children … We felt like they would know best how to use that money.”

Rethwisch says the multiple resources available to providers are a silver lining in a chaotic time.

“There are a lot of needs, but I also feel like our area does a really good job of connecting with each other, so nobody’s out on their own, there’s always somebody there to help them,” she says. “We have resources and we have people that are able to help other people connect.”

The impact on families

Magnets outside a classroom at Laker Prep show which kids are at home that day, and which are at school. The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated some new rules for health and safety, but it hasn't lessened the opportunities for fun and learning at the majority of child care centers and home daycares around Becker County, which remain open and operating mostly as normal. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)
Magnets outside a classroom at Laker Prep show which kids are at home that day, and which are at school. The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated some new rules for health and safety, but it hasn't lessened the opportunities for fun and learning at the majority of child care centers and home daycares around Becker County, which remain open and operating mostly as normal. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)

The needs don’t end with the providers. Families, too, are going through extra challenges with child care because of the pandemic.

Mona Eger, who along with Jodi Moss oversees the Child Care Assistance Program for Becker County through MAHUBE-OTWA, says they’ve been receiving more applications than usual from families seeking multiple forms of public assistance -- not only for child care, but also for food support, energy assistance, and help with navigating MNsure.

Eger attributes that increase to COVID-19 and the jobs lost because of it.

“We’re getting a bit more calls from parents who are unemployed and don’t know when they’ll be able to get back,” she says. “To be eligible for assistance, they have to be employed … So that’s...really alarming for those families, because they then could lose their spot with that program.”

There’s a governor's order in place in Minnesota right now that essentially “holds” child care spots for families on assistance. The order ensures that providers continue to receive pay for the unused spots until those parents are able to return to work and return their kids to daycare. The order expires Sept. 6, Eger says, and while “we’re seeing some families being called back to work, we’re seeing a lot of unemployed families, too, and it’s really important for them to know that they have a provider to go back to when they do get called back.”

The affordability of child care has become a heightened concern for all families during the pandemic, as new COVID-related policies cut into parents’ pocketbooks and some struggle with lost income due to layoffs or reduced work hours.

New illness policies, for example, have resulted in kids getting sent home from daycare or preschool more frequently, sometimes just for mild colds and low-grade fevers. This often means Mom or Dad has to take time off of work to stay home with the child, yet it's common for providers to still bill for those sick days.

“That’s the worst part ... being someone’s bill,” says Winter. “Nobody wants to pay when they’re not getting anything out of it. To charge a parent when their kid’s not here -- I don’t want to do that. But at the same time, I can’t reserve your spot and not get paid for a month while your child is teething and has a fever. This is my livelihood.”

Despite the extra difficulties associated with COVID, Eger says “our families are really resilient,” and she credits the “extremely accommodating and caring” providers in the area for working with families to ensure the best care for their kids.

Thielen, for one, says she's had great experiences working with her daycare families. And all of them supported her decision to close when the pandemic hit. A couple of those families found temporary "backup care," she says, while a few others have grandparents or other family members watching the kids. The rest decided to stay home with the kids themselves.

Providers say many parents are opting to keep their kids home or with family until the pandemic runs its course, even if their normal child care provider is still operating as usual. And some who would have started their child in preschool this fall, Rethwisch notes, are opting to wait a year in hopes that things will be back to normal by then.

Anecdotally, the demand for child care does not seem to be increasing, providers say. They haven’t heard of the numbers going up at open child care centers or in-home daycares, even though some daycares have closed. On the contrary, the numbers seem to be down in many places, either because providers have chosen to reduce their numbers during the pandemic, or, Winter says, “because a lot of people have alternative care with families.”

She’s quick to add that that’s “as of now. If there’s no school in the fall, that’ll be a different story. We (in-home providers) are capped at how many kids we can take. If there’s no school, what are parents going to do with kids that are 10 and younger? I know I wouldn’t want to leave my kid under 10 home alone.”

“This is going to be a tough year,” Winter adds. “It’s a scary time.”

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