Child Care Providers And Parent Anxiety Rises With Coronavirus Case Count

A child's temperature is checked by staff at Long Beach child care facility. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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More than half of all coronavirus outbreaks reported at child care and early education programs in Los Angeles County since the pandemic began have stemmed from the recent record surge in COVID-19 cases.

There are 22 open investigations into sites with three or more cases in staff and children. Since June, 40 outbreaks have been recorded.

"I want to give a lot of credit to all of our providers, or our childcare providers, they've done an amazing job," said L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer at a media briefing last week. "For many, many months, taking care of small children, young children and using a lot of safety and there have been very, very few cases."

Just a small fraction of the 7,256 licensed child care homes and centers currently open in the county have recorded a confirmed case of the virus, but even a single case carries personal and financial risk for providers who are struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic.

"It's like a gamble with our lives to be quite honest," said L.A. family child care provider Micaela Walker. "And it's just kind of hard because we also want to make sure that children have a safe and stable place and that the parents have reliable child care so that way they can continue to go to work."

So parents sit on pins and needles waiting to see if a COVID case will close a service that's helped them maintain their sanity and some semblance of stability during the pandemic.

"I don't know any woman in my circle who isn't crying all the time, who is literally losing hair, stress vomiting, and I don't think that ends with the vaccine," said Woodland Hills mom Rachel Stuhler.

NO SECTOR UNTOUCHED BY CORONAVIRUS CASES

Between November 1 and December 7, coronavirus cases increased 625% in L.A. County.

On Friday, Dec. 18, the county recorded 16,504 coronavirus cases, 96 deaths and 5,100 hospitalizations. ICU capacity in Southern California is 0%.

"The increase that we see in cases translates unfortunately to increases everywhere else," Ferrer said last week. "Our work sites, our early childcare centers, our schools, among our health care workers — there's really not a sector that is untouched by seeing these increases."

The state agency that licenses child care — which like the country relies on providers to self-report — has counted 1,421 COVID-19 cases in staff, parents, students and other adults associated with their facilities for the year.

Child Care Providers United Chair Max Arias estimates the true number of cases is underreported.

"They are struggling to stay open and if they close, they're done," Arias said of providers. "In many cases one closure can just break you completely."

The union, which represents home child care providers serving low-income families that receive state subsidies, has called for the state to increase the number of days providers can be paid while closed because of the pandemic, which is currently capped at 14.

County public health guidelines say child care providers must notify licensing and the department of public health of every confirmed coronavirus case in a staff member who's been on-site in the last 14 days. Any staff member or child who spent at least 15 minutes closer than six feet to the infectious person must quarantine for 14 days.

Last week, in the middle of her shift at a San Fernando Valley supermarket, Edna Fuentes got a call from her family's daycare center. She had to pick her children up right away because one of their teachers tested positive for COVID-19.

"Now, I'm at home with all four kids and I had to be laid off," Fuentes said. "I pay rent by myself. I'm a single parent of four. So it's kind of [a] struggle, it has affected [me] in so many ways that you can't even imagine."

Fuentes relies on organizations like Friends of the Family to feed and clothe her household.

"I'm overwhelmed to be honest with you," Fuentes said. "How can I provide for my kids right now?"

It's difficult for her to explain to her kids, who range from ages 2 to 10, why they're all at home.

"I tell them we're on vacation," Fuentes said. "We're OK. Nothing's going to happen, stuff like that."

'THE CHILDREN ARE GOING TO BE LEFT OUT'

South Los Angeles family child care provider Micaela Walker had to temporarily close this month after finding out she'd been exposed to a positive coronavirus case through work.

Micaela Walker and her mother run a family child care in South L.A. (Courtesy Micaela Walker)

Walker and her mother, who started their child care business 20 years ago, have since tested negative for the virus and are waiting for results from each of their families before reopening.

Providers like Walker operate on slim margins. Los Angeles child care workers, who are largely women of color, make an average of $14.65 per hour, and family child care providers often make even less. Even before the closure, they'd dipped into their savings to stay afloat.

UC Berkeley's Center for the Study of Child Care Employment surveyed child care providers this summer and found that 80% are paying more for supplies and protective equipment and 77% of open providers lost income as more families have kept their kids at home during the pandemic.

More than 2,400 California child care providers have closed permanently since the start of the pandemic and that number is expected to grow without further financial relief.

"As long as they don't have the support, eventually people will get tired," Walker said. "The children are going to be left out. So this is all in efforts really, just to help the children, our future."

PARENTS ON PINS AND NEEDLES

Child care can be hard to come by during the pandemic and even once a family finds a provider that they can trust — and afford — there's no guarantee how long it will last.

Eric Schmeltzer and his wife work full time, in political public relations and higher education, respectively, and sent their 14-month-old daughter back to the Encino daycare she attended before the pandemic when it reopened this summer.

Schmeltzer said the staff have "gone above and beyond" to keep the daycare safe with additional precautions, including requiring staff and children to wear masks, temperature checks and ample hand sanitizer.

Still, the daycare has reported a few coronavirus cases in children and shut down completely once. The couple handled it by coordinating their schedules and with a little help from TV favorites Sesame Street and Word Party.

"My wife and I are sitting on pins and needles worried about that third case or fourth case and potentially the decision to close the daycare indefinitely," Schmeltzer said. "You're really putting your trust in other parents to take the life of your child seriously and your life seriously."

About 10 miles away in Woodland Hills, Rachel Stuhler's 3-year-old son now wakes up with a consistent question.

Rachel Stuhler, husband Jake Sarnowski and their 3- and 6-year-old sons. (Courtesy Rachel Stuhler)

"Mama, is today a school day?"

Stuhler, a writer, opted to pull her son from a private day care after Thanksgiving as the number of coronavirus cases in the community rose.

"As tired as I am — and I am exhausted all the time — it's a small price to pay for making sure that I'm protecting someone's whole life, my child's whole life," Stuhler said.

Like moms throughout L.A. and the country, she's picked up the bulk of the child care for her younger son and distance learning assistance for her 6-year-old son while her husband works a "normal day" as a product manager from their home.

Stuhler squeezes her writing while her older son participates in distance learning and after her husband finishes his day, sometimes stretching bedtime to 3 a.m.

"There is this huge well of unmet needs and we are absolutely conditioned to put our families first, to sacrifice whatever we need to," Stuhler said. "The problem is that those unmet needs don't go away."

IMPORTANT LINKS

L.A County Department of Public Health Early Care & Education COVID-19 Toolkit: Guidelines for minimizing risk and what to do if there's a coronavirus case (or a provider suspects one).

Help Finding Child Care: The Child Care Alliance of Los Angeles website locates the nearest child care referral agency where you can get help finding a provider and see if you qualify for financial assistance.

Statewide coronavirus case totals related to licensed child care facilities: On the right side of this page under "Quick Links" click COVID-19 Positive Cases in Child Care Facilities.

Los Angeles County coronavirus outbreaks in educational settings: Schools and licensed child care providers with at least three confirmed coronavirus cases.

Additional information about supplies, financial and mental health support for child care providers: This website was created by the LA County Early Childhood Education COVID-19 Response Team.