Most 'Pop-Up' Child Care Centers Were Already Watching Kids Before The Pandemic 

Socially distant physical education at the Torrance Memorial Medical Center's pop-up child care center. (Courtesy Sharon Drobka)

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There have been several public mentions of the hundreds of "pop-up" child care centers that have sprung into action since coronavirus-induced school closures.

Most recently, Gov. Gavin Newsom's May budget revision summary said "to date, there are close to 500 temporary pop-up child care programs throughout California." Newsom designated $50 million to temporarily pay for child care for 20,000 kids of essential workers.

On March 16, California's Department of Social Services rolled out waivers meant to "help ensure that child care services are available for working families in need while schools are closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19." The waivers allow businesses to open "pop-up" child care centers and bypass the normal licensing process.


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The goal was to establish centers like the one opened by entrepreneur Jess Zaino in a Burbank photo studio. Inspired by community child care she'd witnessed in refugee camps and her own experiences as a working single mom during the pandemic, Zaino used a waiver to create a child care center for about 15 essential worker families.

Jess Zaino opened a temporary child care center in a Burbank photo studio for essential worker families. (Courtesy Jess Zaino)

"If I'm struggling, I can't imagine what the hospital workers are going through with their children at home and having to pay the cost of day care and figure out the dynamic and logistics," Zaino said.

But as it turns out, few of those waivers were sought by new providers such as Zaino. The waivers also allowed existing providers to expand their services so they could care for children of different ages and increase the maximum number of kids in their facilities.

According to the state agency that licenses child care, the vast majority of the temporary pop-ups are operated by established providers. At a recent Early Childhood Policy Council meeting, California Department of Social Services Director Kim Johnson said 81% of the waivers went to existing child care providers.

"So that's everything from a licensed family child care provider who was a small family provider with a capacity of eight expanding to a capacity of 14, and also centers who wanted to potentially expand their capacity," Johnson said.

As of May 29, the California Department of Social services has issued 525 waivers, including:

  • 95 in L.A. County
  • 25 in Riverside County
  • 11 in Orange County
  • 9 in Ventura County
  • 7 in San Bernardino County

The agency provided LAist a list of 41 L.A. County locations that received emergency child care waivers. Dozens of other providers who take care of kids in their homes were not included in the list to protect their privacy, the agency said

The majority of L.A. County facilities were existing child care agencies that applied for waivers to care for a few extra children. About 12 appeared to be healthcare-related organizations such as hospitals or rehabilitation centers.

Pop-up centers such as the one Zaino created with the help of crowdfunding were an exception.

Zaino, who is now working with individual businesses to create child care options, said the parents she met with agreed that "child care is broken. Child care is something that we struggle with and have no real solution for."

STAYING OPEN FOR THE FEW

On a typical day, up to 20 infants and toddlers and 36 preschoolers fill The Learning Garden's Torrance classrooms.

Nassim Agange is a second-generation early educator, in non-pandemic times she works with her mom at The Learning Garden. (Courtesy Nassim Agange)

As Southern California's major school districts shut down mid-March, owner and administrator Nassim Agange realized the older siblings of her young students might need a place to go.

The idea of these pop-up child care centers was one factor that motivated Agange to stay open.

"I didn't like the idea that somebody who is enrolled with us and needs us would have to take their child to a parking lot and leave them with people that they've never met," Agange said. She also figured that adding children from the same family wouldn't increase the health risks to other kids or her staff.

At the same time, she wasn't comfortable caring for children from new families.

"I also didn't want to take on any more risk than what was already involved in operating a child care center in the middle of a pandemic," Agange said.

Ultimately, Agange didn't end up enrolling any school-age children, as parents who lost their jobs or were furloughed opted to keep their kids at home. The Learning Garden furloughed half of its staff at the peak of the shutdown.

In recent weeks, families have started to return to the center, and several new families who received subsidies for essential worker child care have enrolled.

Children over three years old are expected to wear masks, parents must provide their own pen to sign in, and students are limited to groups of 10, per county and state guidelines.

"The risk isn't over, even as the shelter in place eases," Agange said.

Agange says families are returning to The Learning Garden and she's been able to bring back most of the furloughed staff. (Courtesy Nassim Agange)

TURNING A CONFERENCE CENTER INTO CHILD CARE

On Friday, March 13, Renee Pamanes and every other parent in the Los Angeles Unified School District found out their children would not be returning to their classrooms the following Monday.

Pamanes, who works as a scheduler at Torrance Memorial Medical Center, started calling friends and family to see who could watch her five-year-old son, Isaiah, and 13-year-old daughter, Angelina.

"As a parent, you have to plan ahead," Pamanes said. "You need to coordinate clothes to wear for the children. You have to plan their meals. You have to plan the time of leaving your house and the time of arrival."

Pamanes stayed home from work for a few days, trying to figure out exactly what her family's plan would be. On March 18, the hospital partnered with the local YMCA and received an emergency waiver from the state to offer child care in the hospital's unused conference center from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday.

At first the kids were nervous — Pamanes was too — but she was reassured by the safety precautions, including morning temperature checks and facial coverings.

"I knew people were not randomly coming and going inside of the building." Pamanes said. "I knew that there was staff available to help and assist in any questions that I may have had during, before and after."

And the kids loved the hospital food. It came up again when LAist spoke with hospital senior accountant and dad of two, Alan Chung.

"I liked the noodles," five-year-old Alec piped up from the background of his dad's interview. The breakfast burritos and steak were also a big hit.

On any given day, there were 20 to 25 children dropped off at the Torrance Memorial conference-center-turned-child-care. (Courtesy Sharon Drobka)

Mornings at the conference-center-turned-child-care started off with physical education. Kids practiced hockey and dribbled basketballs. Artwork soon filled the walls of the conference center.

"Some kids would not want to go home because they're having too much fun," said Sharon Drobka, associate executive director of community programs for the Torrance South Bay YMCA. "I think it's the best compliment."

So May 29, the last day of child care at the hospital, was a bummer for kids and staff alike. The Torrance South Bay YMCA reopened its own summer programs on June 1. Other YMCA locations continue to provide free child care to essential workers.

Drobka says a few of the middle school kids set up Google chats so they could stay connected, others will reunite in the YMCA's summer programs.

Leah Romine, clinical director of the medical center's maternal child health services, says there was an average of 20 to 25 children a day.

"We wanted to make sure that if we were going to get a big influx of sick patients, that our staff could come to work and not have to worry about things that were going on at home," Romine said. "Providing free child care for them was one way to help ease that burden."

POST 'POP-UP' CHILD CARE

Alan Chung's younger son returned to his private day care in June. Renee Pamanes' younger son will attend the YMCA's summer program. Both parents' older children will homeschool for the rest of the year and summer.

Gov. Newsom has said "child care is foundational to getting people back to work." This month, the state released updated guidelines for reopening child care and early learning facilities.

But it's still unclear how many child care businesses will be able to reopen at all. Many may not be able to survive the economic uncertainty that's followed the coronavirus outbreak.

California's revised budget proposed slashing funding to early education programs, including a 10% reduction of subsidies that pay providers to care for children from low-income families. Lawmakers have pushed back against those cuts.

A survey of more than 2,000 California child care programs found that 61% reported a loss of income due to low attendance or families not paying.

Palmdale's Living Praise Early Learning Academy closed April 10 due to a "massive reduction in overall attendance," said Jamila Allen, who helps out with administration at the center.

Despite receiving a waiver to increase capacity and accept older children, many families had parents working from home, who hired babysitters or relied on family members to watch their children.

Allen is preparing to reopen on June 15 by stocking up on prepackaged snacks, training staff to do daily health checks, and marking six-foot separations on the floor with tape. She expects a reunion of about seven children the first day.

As Allen said: "We want to make sure the kids have a safe place to come where they can learn, have fun and just have something to do over the summer."