When Gov. Ralph Northam shut down school buildings for the rest of the year, he told child care providers to prioritize children of essential personnel.
Since that order, Charlottesville-area organizations have worked to determine the need in the community, as well as which providers are either open or able to reopen.
“Right now, the need isn’t that significant,” said Barbara Hutchinson, vice president of community impact for the United Way of Greater Charlottesville. “I’m assuming folks have patched together help from family or are working from home.”
The joint Emergency Operations Center surveyed major essential employers in the area about child care needs, she said.
Hutchinson said the local United Way is prepared to help providers reopen if the need changes, which she expects could happen if local COVID-19 cases significantly increase and the hours of first responders and health care professionals change.
For right now, Hutchinson said providers are in a “vicious cycle.”
“We may end up losing some providers, and the area doesn’t have the extra capacity to lose them,” she said.
Hutchinson said she typically works with about 40 child care centers — many of which work with economically disadvantaged families. Now, she estimates that six to 10 centers are open.
“It’s another industry that has been devastated by the virus,” she said.
Albemarle County and Charlottesville school divisions also have explored offering emergency child care. State officials have said school building use during the closure is a local decision.
“We stand ready to provide this service should it be needed,” city schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said.
Albemarle has established a working group to develop a plan.
To assist employees, the University of Virginia has expanded options for backup child care through a partnership with BrightHorizons, said Adam Weikel, an assistant vice president of human resources.
The expanded backup care program includes using vacant spots in local licensed child care facilities, in-home care and reimbursement for parents who secure their own care with a relative, family friend or familiar babysitter.
UVa also partnered with SitterCity.com to help cover the cost for employees and help them to access an expanded network of caregivers in the community.
Those in need of child care services can call Child Care Aware VA at (866) KIDS-TLC or go to vachildcare.com/ to find a provider.
Hutchinson said those who are open are following best practices to protect children, such as not eating lunch in large groups and keeping one group on the playground at a time.
“I think it could be done safely,” she said.
Day care providers do have to abide by the 10-person limit on gatherings.
Gail Esterman, the director of early learning with ReadyKids, said area child care providers face several hard choices as they grapple with ramifications of the pandemic.
“Group care for young children on a good day is a germ fest,” she said. “Kids don’t understand social distancing and hygiene.”
Those that remain open have to do so with fewer children, which means less income.
“This is an invisible industry,” she said. “The average child care worker makes less than someone working at McDonald’s. But they provide a crucial service.”
Margaret Leckrone, owner of Foundations Child Development Center in Albemarle County, said staff members who are not working with children are cleaning the facilities and disinfecting toys.
Students and staff members are checked daily for signs and symptoms of illness.
Older children have their own desk and set of supplies such as markers and playdough, so they don’t share.
“Each kid has their own tricycle with their name on it,” Leckrone said.
Still, Leckrone has seen her numbers drop in recent weeks. She typically has about 110 children but now about 10 to 20 regularly show up, at different times.
Foundations is open to infants to 12-year-olds. Leckrone said she’s had some interest from school-age children, but she hasn’t taken on many other kids.
“We’re figuring all this out right now,” she said.
She decided to stay open because many of her families were essential personnel.
“They are doing important jobs and we are doing important work,” she said. “We’re hanging in there, but it’s stressful.”