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During coronavirus pandemic, child care facilities rate as ‘essential’

‘Child care providers provide essential care to essential staff in order for them to perform their essential jobs,’ said Lindsay Carson of Pinellas County’s Early Learning Coalition.
Children perform the YMCA dance at the Spurlino Family YMCA at Big Bend Road in Gibsonton. The kids spend their days at the facility's temporary child care center as their parents work to fight the coronavirus pandemic. [Courtesy of Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA]

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TAMPA — Schools are temporarily shuttered throughout the state, as are dine-in restaurants, bars and beaches.

Those suspensions have upended everyday life for Floridians but are deemed necessary to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Still, daycare centers remain open and that “creates a reservoir of potential infection," said Jay Wolfson, the senior associate dean for health policy and practice at the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine.

So why has Governor Ron DeSantis refused to close them?

Because they are also considered necessary during the pandemic, Wolfson said. “If we close daycares, parents are forced to stay home from work, including physicians and nurses.”

The spread of coronavirus has caused society to reevaluate what is considered an essential service, Wolfson said.

A month ago, for instance, grocery workers were not widely thought as among the most important cogs of everyday life.

Today, however, they are deemed crucial.

The same now goes for child care providers.

“Child care providers provide essential care to essential staff in order for them to perform their essential jobs,” said Lindsay Carson, the CEO of Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County, a nonprofit that administers child care resources and referrals.

Governor DeSantis has said that closing child care centers would “cause huge issues throughout the state.”

Especially, USF’s Wolfson said, since coronavirus endangers grandparents who often help with child care.

Still, Wolfson said, reliance on child care centers creates a double-edged sword during this pandemic. “Children are going home in the evening and the workers in the daycares are still going to their homes and we have no idea if they are bringing something back into the daycares.”

Child care centers reached by the Tampa Bay Times say they are doing all they can to remain sterile.

The Hortin Child Development Center in St. Petersburg, for instance, is performing a “full scrub down” mid-day and again when the facility closes, its director Jessica Passman said. “Everything is cleaned with 99 percent alcohol.”

Children and employees have their temperatures checked upon arrival.

“Anyone over 100 (degrees) cannot come back for 14 days without a doctor’s note saying their testing for coronavirus came back negative,” Passman said. “We also have a strict no parents inside policy.”

But USF’s Wolfson said governments do not have the resources to ensure that all child care centers “put in place extreme measures of security. All we can do is ask for everybody to be responsible.”

Alayne Unterberger, the director of the Florida Institute for Community Studies that provides resources for the immigrant communities of Town 'n' Country and Wimauma, admits she wasn’t sure if their Morgan Woods Community Center that offers care to school-age kids when school is out could remain sterile.

“We were taking precautions but were worried it was not enough,” Unterberger said. “We cannot find Lysol wipes."

So, she made the tough choice to temporarily close.

But some of those kids’ parents — employed in the healthcare industries — are still going to work.

Unterberger is worried the “unsupervised youth” are exposed to gangs “who recruit them young.”

Hers is not the only facility to suspend operations.

“Nearly 60 percent of all licensed child care centers and before- and after-school programs have temporarily closed” in Pinellas, said that county’s Early Learning Coalition director Carson.

The temporary closures of child care centers are near 20 percent in Hillsborough County, according to Jonna Johnson, a spokesperson for the Early Learning Coalition there, though her figure only includes providers that care for children for a full day.

Some in both counties suspended operations because too many parents decided to keep their children home until the threat of the virus passes.

Others, like Florida Institute for Community Studies, were concerned for the health of the kids and employees.

“They don’t have the resources they need,” Johnson of Hillsborough’s Early Learning Coalition said. To help more remain open, “we are starting a donation to collect paper goods and sanitation items.”

St. Petersburg cab driver Jack Amos has custody of his grandchildren and relies on child care for them. The two centers he uses are temporarily closed, but he is still needed at work, mostly by regular elderly clients who need rides to medical appointments.

“I am playing family musical chairs," Amos said. “At least I have someone who can watch them. Some have no one.”

The local YMCA is assisting such families.

They have converted 21 facilities across Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Citrus and Hernando counties into temporary child care centers while school remains suspended.

These centers provide an array of activities in small groups, such as archery and canoeing.

“This was the obvious big void in the community we felt we collectively could serve,” Matt Mitchell, president of the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA, said.

Nearly 250 children are currently registered for the program that can serve up to 2,400.

To ensure that essential employees find child care openings, Carson of Pinellas’ Early Learning Coalition suggests those who can keep children home do so. “That will help.”

But, if financially possible, keep your kids enrolled, she said, because if too many parents cease child care payments, centers could go under and not return.

St. Petersburg’s Diana Kollen is doing just that. She stopped taking her two children to their Sprout Academy child care center.

“I am working from home for now so I can watch them,” Kollen, an internal audit director for Jabil, said. “I am leaving their spots open for those who need them.”

Until the pandemic passes, Sprout Academy is accepting “drop offs" if there are openings at their six Pinellas locations, district manager Laketta Wallace said, because parents “need somewhere for their children to be.”

Still, parents sending kids to child care have angst.

Christy Comer of Holiday works for a nonprofit that tracks kids in the foster system.

She is needed in the office so drops her two kids at the Little Explorers Learning Center.

“They are doing everything they can to sanitize it,” Comer said. “But I am concerned. I can control what I do in my household, but I can’t control what anyone else does in theirs. Then those other kids are with mine.”

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