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Child care may be limited as restrictions lift

Danielle Starkey
Tahoe Daily Tribune
Gladys Marical, holds Inez, 1, while Yarely, 3, hugs mom in 2016 at the Mount Tallac day care center.
Tribune file

When COVID-19 shut down businesses, many child care providers shut down, too. Now that stay-at-home orders are lifting and more people are heading back to work, many who need child care may find that their familiar day care center is still closed, as are their second and third choices.

The paucity of available day care is threatening to pose yet another challenge for stressed families in the coming days.

Normally, there are 38 child care providers in the South Lake Tahoe area, including Meyers and Stateline. As of Friday, just 19 were open, and even those had trimmed enrollment to meet social distancing guidelines, said Heather Dellaripa, title subsidy program manager for Choices for Children, a nonprofit resource and referral child care agency.

“That’s something people aren’t thinking about as much right now, but they will be soon,” Dellaripa predicted.

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Calls from parents seeking help finding child care dwindled significantly in March and April, she said, but they’ve been creeping up again. More and more daycare centers are getting ready for them, she added.

“Two opened this week, and those two have a capacity to serve roughly 70 children. One more opens on Monday (and has a capacity for 44) and another one doesn’t open until June 1 (and has a capacity for 46),” she said. “It’s been a very challenging time, definitely, but this is a really resilient population and they would do anything they could to help the kids.”

Day care providers, unlike other service providers, weren’t forced to shut down as long as they weren’t based at a site — such as a school — that was forced to close, and could safely operate under the new guidelines, said Dellaripa.

Still, many did close; others cut back enrollment. They were only supposed to care for the children of essential workers and at-risk children, she added.

Candice Bailey, who owns two day care centers, Step by Step Early Learning and Childcare Center and Under the Magic Pine Tree, has kept both open but her two centers used to have 190 children per day; now, they have just 40. In part, that’s because demand has shrunk — more people are at home with their kids — but also because they are allowed just 10 children in rooms that have the capacity for 24.

She’s had to make significant changes to keep her doors open.

For one thing, she’s reduced staffing ratios: now, there is at least one staff person for every three children. Before the pandemic, their license allowed a ratio of 4 to 1 for children under two, and 8 to 1 for older kids. For school aged kids, it was 14 to 1.

Even with the lower ratios, kids are not naturally disposed to socially distancing, so staff is vigilant in enforcing it and designing activities that don’t promote touching, she said.

Everyone who enters the building — whether they’re arriving for the day or have just returned from a 5-minute walk — has to go through the same process of having their temperature taken and washing their hands. The staff have doubled down on sanitizing everything and hand washing has become an almost hourly ritual.

Bailey, who has owned Under the Magic Pine Tree since 2006 and Step by Step since 2017, said she tried to hold on to her staff of 49 as long as she could since the shutdown began in mid March, but last week had to lay off half of them. She even took out a personal loan to meet payroll for the last two pay periods.

“The pay has never been good (for caregivers in this industry), so I really need to keep those who have a heart for it and are educated,” said Bailey, adding that having a good staff is especially important now. “The kids are very frustrated with life right now. I’m having my staff take classes on meeting that stress so we can work through this.”

Jude Wood, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of South Lake Tahoe, faced a different crisis when COVID-19 shut down the school sites where the youth club offers its after-school and meal program. How were the kids supposed to get their dinners on Monday to Friday?

The answer was simple — to Wood and her staff, anyway. They rolled up their sleeves and have been preparing as many as 100 ready-to-eat meals, pizza and stir-fry and the like, five days a week in the school’s kitchen. They also set up both drive-through and drop-off programs to maintain social distancing with their clients when distributing the meals.

Wood admits to some culinary skill, but her audience usually consists of her 5-year-old son, Jake, and husband, Merick, so making the meals was a change of pace, she acknowledged.

“Thankfully, I have staff who have worked in the restaurant business,” she said. They also got meals donated by three local restaurants: MacDuff’s Pub, Verde Mexican Rotisserie and Lake Tahoe Aleworx.

Because a youth club has different licensing from a day care center, Wood doesn’t yet know when they can open their doors again to the 320 or so kids they used to see daily at their two sites.

“We’re waiting for California to lift the stay-at home order (and) the local school districts, hospitals, the county health department and the county department of education to give us guidance on what we need to do to be safe,” Wood said.

In the meantime, more and more people are turning up for the free meals, only about 30% of them are club members, Wood said. Before the virus hit, they were serving about 30 cafeteria-style meals per day; then, just after the shutdown, it grew to about 60. Now, it’s over 100.

Bailey, owner of the child care centers, worries about whether people going to work next week and beyond will be able to find the child care they need when they need it.

“Having safe, quality child care is critical for going back to work,” she said. “If people can’t go back to work, we’ll be severely limited in our ability to restart our economy.”


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