Dear LAist: Will My Child's Day Care Center Or Preschool Close?

ABC Little School in Studio City now closes Fridays for deep cleaning. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Ortega)

UPDATE, March 19, 6:45 p.m.: This story was updated to include information on child care based on the "Safer At Home" orders issued by LA Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Ever since schools were closed in response to the coronavirus outbreak, parents have been reaching out to LAist with a pressing question: will my child's day care center or preschool close, too?

The short answer is maybe.

But the state agency that licenses child care centers is largely leaving the decision up to the providers — and they have just as many questions as parents do.

"I personally am not going to close unless they tell me, but part of me wants them to tell me to close because I'm a little nervous too," said Kim Martin, who has taken care of kids out of her North Hollywood home for 23 years. "There are people who still need care."

One reason she's nervous is that she turned 66 this year, making her part of the population more likely to get seriously ill from the coronavirus. In addition, she's afraid she wouldn't qualify for unemployment if she closed.

As a licensed provider, Martin looks to California's Department of Social Services for guidance — and it hasn't offered recommendations on whether child care providers should keep operating.

Instead, it is telling providers they should take measures like screening teachers and staff "for respiratory infection symptoms" and the start of each day — but it doesn't say how they should do that.

This week the department moved to expand the capacity of California childcare providers. It ordered an emergency waiver to existing state rules that allows employers to open emergency child care services on their premises, and allows independent operators to increase the number of kids in their care if there's a child care shortage in their area. The waiver doesn't define what constitutes a shortage, though.

Late Thursday, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti issued new guidelines under the "Safer at Home" order that goes into effect on Friday. It reads, "Childcare facilities may only operate if they comply with the conditions of this Order as they related to child care. Among these conditions, children must be cared for in groups of 12 or fewer, groups of children may not mix with each other, and providers may not circulate between groups."

This comes as the federal government has advised against gatherings of more than 10 people.

The social services department is also working to create a temporary child care workforce. One idea is that teachers from closed schools could shift to staff emergency child care at vital employers such as hospitals.

LAist has requested an interview with the department.

When asked to provide recommendations for daycare centers Monday in a White House press conference, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said the existing guidelines do not include daycare.

"I think it's very important we should — probably, if we have not discussed that, go back and discuss that in some detail about whether or not that's equivalent to school," Fauci said. "That's a good question."

One person tuned in was Stacey Grumet, who runs a preschool and child care directory called Paper Pinecone.

"It was upsetting to watch," she said. Countless providers have reached out asking for advice over the last few weeks.

"These people are literally risking their health and safety. Family child care providers are risking their homes," Grumet said. "It's really up to the states at this point to step up to shut down child care."

The non-profit Child Care Aware of America has recomended facilities follow the example set by local school districts and their state.

At this point, Gov. Gavin Newsom and local political and health leaders have made no indication that they will order child care facilities closed.

"The bottom line is we need our child care facilities, our daycare centers to operate to absorb the magnitude of the impacts of the school closures," Newsom said at a Tuesday press conference.

The state's legislature has approved $100 million to pay for cleaning at K-12 and child care centers. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health's recommendations for child care facilities include routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces like doorknobs, sending home ill students and staff, and restricting visitors.

Many providers want more guidance.

So much so that a state Department of Social Services conference call Tuesday had so many people trying to join that it caused technical difficulties.

The agency walked through the recently issued guidelines and then opened the lines to providers.

Some worried about the vulnerability of older family members in their homes. Others said they'd had trouble buying supplies.

But the top question was whether providers should stay open.

The department did not have a clear answer.

"It really goes back on the operator to be able to assess what is going on in their community and what is going on within their facility," program administrator Shanice Orum said during the call.

'WE DID EVERYTHING WE COULD UP TO THE MOMENT THAT WE COULDN'T'

Tuesday's breakfast at Young Horizons Child Development Centers in Long Beach was supposed to include toast.

It didn't. Neither Costco, which usually supplies the centers 400 students, nor nearby markets had a slice to spare.

That's one factor the board considered when deciding to shutter the centers through the end of March starting Wednesday.

Another was fear of spreading the virus among staff, children and families . Attendance across the five centers had dropped to 25%.

"We did everything we could up to the moment that we couldn't," executive director Sarah Soriano said.

Sarah Soriano has worked for Long Beach's Young Horizons Child Development Center for 25 years. (Mariana Dale/ LAist)

She said it's impossible for a child care center to enforce the social distancing recommendation that people stay at least six feet apart.

"Children naturally want to play together, they want to build things together, they want to color and paint and even when they're playing out on the playground it's interactive play," she said.

Soriano said she lost sleep over the decision to close and that neither the city of Long Beach, the county of Los Angeles nor the state licensing agency gave a clear directive to early child care centers.

"There's just uncertainty and a certain level of fear," Soriano said.

The center plans to pay staff through the end of March and apply for reimbursement through a California Department of Education program for schools that close under emergency conditions. Soriano said there's no guarantee her request will be fulfilled.

The House passed a coronavirus relief bill Friday, but some advocates are calling for more specific provisions for early childhood workers.

"Essentially we need the industry to be subsidized or get relief during this crisis," said Lea Austin, director for the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at University of California, Berkeley.

Austin said paid leave would also allow workers to stay home with their children, relieving the pressure on child care centers to stay open.

Without those measures, Austin said some closures could become permanent.

"Child care programs are already kind of operating on the margins," Austin said. "There are not reserves that most programs have."

'I HAVE PARENTS THAT ARE IN NEED OF ME BEING OPEN'

"You don't have a fever? Anyway, how about you? Have you been sick?"

This is how Kim Martin greeted two school-age children arriving at her home Tuesday.

Being extra-vigilant about health is one way she's trying to maintain a safe environment for the nearly dozen children that come to her home on any given day.

On a typical day, about 11 children come to Kim Martin's North Hollywood home, but attendance has been down recently. (Courtesy Kim Martin)

When one of the kids sneezes, she encourages them to "chicken wing," her way of telling them to cover their faces with their elbow.

Martin plans to stay open. Part of the decision is financial. She's self-employed and wouldn't normally qualify for unemployment from the state.

"If I have to close, it's not in my contract that people would pay me," Martin said. "I've never even thought to put in my contract 'in case of a pandemic.'"

A few parents have decided to keep their children home. She's worried about the health risks that come with accepting new students, but has decided to take in at least one child of a health care worker.

"I'm also a support to families," Martin said. "That's why we're here too. It's not just for me. It's not just a job and a paycheck."

A classroom at ABC Little School in Studio City. (Courtesy of Stephanie Ortega)

So for now here's what Martin is telling her parents:

"We're business as usual until you get a text from me that says we're not."

At ABC Little School in Studio City parents are dropping their children off at the gates. Staff are advised to travel only between their homes and the school.

Stephanie Ortega is the school's director. It's up to her to implement policies to ensure the safety of her employees and the more than 100 students who range in age from 18 months to 6 years old.

"I have parents that are upset that I'm open," Ortega said. "And I have parents that are in need of me being open."

Ortega says the biggest challenge has been the lack of direction from the Department of Social Services.

Ortega wishes the agency would send health care providers to her school, offer training for staff so they know how to look for symptoms of respiratory illness and provide testing so they know coronavirus isn't spreading in their facility.

"What is it that we're facing? No one knows," Ortega said.

The New York Times found child care workers and preschool workers had an elevated risk of getting sick from coronavirus because of their close proximity to children.

At this point, she's decided to stay open, but has reduced the school's hours and sends children home on Fridays so staff have more time to clean.

"We're kind of on our own here," Ortega said."[If] we continue to stay open and the situation does worsen. I'm putting not only my teachers at risk, I'm putting the children at risk."