How many will never reopen? The next few weeks will reveal the future of one of the economy's most critical support systems.
With more parents working from home — or stuck at home after having lost their jobs — the demand for child care has plummeted, forcing about 60% of the 400 child care centers in Volusia and Flagler counties to close. The facilities that have remained open, including Bunnell's Ity Bity Learning Center and Ormond Beach's La Petite Academy, have adjusted to life with stringent sanitation protocols and drastically reduced enrollment.
The next few weeks will be critical for the child care industry, according to D.J. Lebo, CEO of the Early Learning Coalition of Flagler and Volusia. As the economy reopens, parents will go back to work and will need child care again. But how many facilities will reopen? How many will decide to close permanently?
“There was enough supply for the demand of child care before the pandemic,” Lebo said. “After, if the supply is half the demand, that’s going to raise the cost of child care to an astronomical cost.”
Therefore, keeping child care facilities alive is a priority for the state’s economic health, she said. To some level, the state is still funding 250 of them in Flagler-Volusia, based on the income of parents, even if the facilities are closed for now.
“The hard part for child care programs is they don’t have a lot of money in the bank,” Lebo said. “And they’re not usually strong business people. They know what to do with a 2-year-old who’s biting, but they don’t know how to apply for a PPP loan.”
Fortunately, signs are positive. Ity Bity and La Petite are seeing enrollment increase slowly. And, Lebo said, “We’ve already heard from 10 that plan to reopen in the next two weeks. One was very excited. She was only reopening part of her school, and she’s not sure her workforce is going to feel comfortable enough to come back, but they’re going to try. It’ll be interesting to see what the next three weeks bring.”
Ity Bity Learning Center
Rebecca Miller owns two child care facilities in Bunnell: Ity Bity Learning Center and Jet’s Day Care Inc. She has kept both of hers open, but numbers have dropped.
Prior to the pandemic, Jet’s had 39 students, plus a waiting list. At its low, it had four students. Ity Bity used to have 52 students, plus a waiting list. At its low it had nine.
Miller was grateful for the supplies donated recently by the Early Learning Coalition of Flagler and Volusia. Thanks to an expedited United Way grant, in the past few weeks the ELC distributed $22,000 worth of cleaning supplies for facilities that remain open. Before the donations, Miller and other facilities had to scour grocery stores for supplies like toilet paper and hand soap.
And thanks to the continued financial support from the state, Miller said, “We weren’t affected too much.”
There is a new protocol, though: Parents can’t enter the building to help their children wash their hands and take a seat for breakfast. Instead, children are only allowed in if they have an acceptable temperature.
Miller also takes other precautions, including running all the toys through a sanitizing dishwasher each day. She doesn’t require her teachers to wear masks, for fear of traumatizing the children.
The numbers have been improving: Ity Bity had 28 students on May 4, Jet’s 14.
“Some kids were excited to come back, and then you see some children having a little bit of separation anxiety, because they’ve been home with mom or dad,” Miller said. “The staff were exited this morning to see the kids come back.”
La Petite Academy
Debra Lipinski, director of La Petite Academy of Ormond Beach, feels fortunate that her facility has been able to stay open as well. Enrollment has dropped, and there is a new protocol of temperature checks; parents aren’t allowed inside anymore; hand washing regiments are enhanced.
Staff at La Petite Academy does wear masks. “It started out as being very weird, but it’s become more routine,” she said, adding: “We are looking forward to the end.”
One problem with masks is that the students can't see the facial expressions of the teachers. For a speech instructor, that's especially important, so one speech instructor at La Petite Academy is now wearing a transparent face shield instead.
Although the masks will eventually go away, the hand washing and other increased sanitizing will remain.
“There’s always runny noses — it’s just the way it is,” Lipinksi said. “But since we’ve started these new protocols, we haven’t been sending anyone home sick. I had one parent say, ‘Gee, my little girl hasn’t had a runny nose since all this started.’ Granted, there’s only five kids in her classroom, but it’s definitely going to have an effect on keeping kids healthier year round."