Essential low-wage workers will need child care amid coronavirus. But will they get it?

When Elizabeth Higgs arrived at It’s a Small World Academy to drop off her one-year-old son before work, she got a mean surprise: She was told the child-care center would be closed indefinitely because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Higgs started to panic. The single mom, who lives with her mother, son and 3-year-old daughter in Liberty City, was due to report for work soon at a distribution center for a major online retailer. Her mother, recovering from back surgery, couldn’t help with child care. So she pleaded and persuaded her daughter’s day-care provider, Liberty Academy Daycare and Preschool, to take the little boy for now.

“I was told only K-12 schools would close, so I was surprised — I hadn’t thought about an alternative,” Higgs said, wondering if Liberty Academy would remain open much longer. “I don’t know if they will be allowed to stay open, but what I do know for sure is I need to go into work. What am I going to do?”

Higgs is at the leading edge of what could be the next big piece of fallout from the pandemic: Trouble with vital child-care services for those lucky enough to still have a job — in particular those with jobs deemed essential, jobs necessary for keeping the hundreds of thousands of Miami-Dade residents who are confined to home fed and as safe as possible under unprecedented circumstances.

For unclear reasons, Small World is one of an unknown number of child-care providers in Miami-Dade that have decided to close their doors in the absence of any official orders to do so. Though public and private schools are closed, the state of Florida has so far exempted child-care centers, a key source of support for keeping people employed, especially those considered to hold essential jobs. On its website, Small World blames the closure vaguely on “the county’s emerging situation with the coronavirus.”

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The coronavirus epidemic and the shutdown of jobs and economic activity have thrown the provision of child-care programs into uncertainty, and at times confusion, even as it becomes more critical to those with jobs deemed to be essential to maintaining a semblance of a functioning society.

One main provider is the Children’s Trust, which funds publicly subsidized child care, preschool and after-school programs that serve some 28,000 kids in 571 locations across Miami-Dade County. With public and private schools closed, it has now extended full-day care to parents whose kids had been enrolled in its after-school programs. Its providers are also making slots available at no cost for children of first responders and other essential workers.

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But Trust administrators say it’s been a daily scramble to help providers meet new regulations and cope with rapidly changing conditions. Their programs, mostly run by nonprofits, represent only a portion of the hundreds of child-care centers across the county, many of which are private mom-and-pop operations.

Most remain open, but no one knows yet how many essential workers may urgently need additional child-care services.

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“There are people who have no form of child care,” said Children’s Trust CEO James Haj. “There are people who need these services.”

With so many people suddenly thrown out of work, many providers funded by the Trust have seen parents pull kids out of care. Some programs are running at half-capacity, while others have closed. That means some have had to furlough child-care workers, themselves low-wage earners. The Trust has committed to covering their wages for the next four weeks, and will continue to “reassess,” Haj said.

Will centers remain open?

It’s still unclear if increased need for care from low-wage essential workers might drive up demand — or if child-care programs will be readily available for them. For one, there is no guarantee that the state will continue allowing centers to stay open, although Gov. Ron DeSantis has said there are no plans to shut them.

But even at centers that remain open, new rules designed to prevent the spread of infection in day-care settings sharply limit the number of kids in a room, and may complicate the ability of programs to continue operating or ramp up to satisfy increased need.

So far, there have been no orders to shut down child-care centers even as public and private schools close, but state of Florida regulators have issued stricter rules to comply with guidelines from the National Centers for Disease and Prevention recommending that people not gather in groups larger than 10. For child-care providers, that means groups of kids under a single teacher’s supervision can be no larger than 10, and have to be kept apart in separate rooms — a standard that programs with small facilities may not be able to meet.

The decision to keep child-care centers open is driven by a recognition that, as kids are sent home from school, it could hurt the ability of essential employees — everything from supermarket clerks, pharmacists, and medical personnel to police and corrections officers — to report to work or satisfy demands for longer hours or additional shifts. A lack of child-care services could effectively crimp operations considered critical during what’s expected to be a long disruption.

Enzo Peraza, a nurse practitioner at a UHealth clinic at Walgreens, has irregular hours during the week and has been called in to do extra work recently. That means she needs trustworthy and affordable child care with extended hours.

But her 3-year-old son’s child-care center closed this week. She tried to find other centers near her home, to no avail. Stay-at-home moms nearby were charging more than what she could afford, and taking her son to work was out of the question. So she asked her brother’s girlfriend to help.

“I couldn’t afford another solution. It would be like an extra mortgage payment,” she said, adding she expects busier days ahead.

The Early Learning Coalition of Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties, which helps low-income working families cover the cost of child-care tuition through its School Readiness program, is trying to help its providers stay open by paying the costs of all children even if they are not attending, said Jackye Russell, senior vice president of public affairs and program policy. Of 1,400 providers supported by the coalition, 92 had closed as of Thursday and most were operating well below capacity, she said.

“It’s a business decision that providers must make; we had one provider today that serves 100 children, but on Monday the center only had one child,” said Russell, adding that many parents are opting to leave children with older siblings or family to protect them from potential contact with the coronavirus at daycare centers.

Help with schoolwork

Having kids to look after all day can be a problem even for parents who work from home, interfering with their ability to do their jobs.

Diamond Barr, 28, works from home doing nails while her husband works at a Budweiser warehouse, a job that’s still going.

She had her two children, 10 and 7, in a Trust-supported after-school program in Miami Gardens, but with school closed she now has them around during the day, making it tougher to properly attend to clients. She finds the young children often need help with schoolwork as their public school moves to virtual instruction.

“The blessing of this situation is that I work from home, but you have to care for the kids,” she said.

Many essential, front-line workers are also low-wage workers, so that they can’t necessarily afford to pay for alternative child care. Most families with kids in Trust-supported programs pay nothing, while some pay a nominal fee.

But even as some newly homebound parents have less need for child care, others may need it more than ever.

One operator of elder-care facilities said this week that some employees have been coming to work with their children. Though new rules mean no visitors are allowed at assisted care facilities, she said she has been forced to improvise to keep her staffers working.

“Now we are living with staff showing up with kids in some cases to the property saying, ‘What am I supposed to do with them? They’re out of school, and I need to come to work,’” said Pilar Carvajal, CEO of Innovation Senior Management, a Miami Beach-based company that operates six assisted-living and elder-care facilities across the state. “We’re having to consider potentially mock day-care centers to a certain degree.

“It’s one thing compounding on top of the other on top of the other.”

Keeping the kids at home

Children’s Trust administrators say they could find themselves improvising again to meet new mandates next week — or, in the worst case, facing an order to shut or further limit day-care operations.

Among the unexpected impacts so far: People who are suddenly out of work are taking their kids out of the programs and keeping them home. Though many don’t pay, some do on a sliding scale, and can’t afford to anymore. Others are fearful the virus could circulate easily in day-care settings despite the new precautions mandated by the state.

While larger programs do have the number of separate rooms sufficient to split up kids into groups of 10, some smaller facilities don’t. For now, that space crunch has been relieved by the withdrawal of many children, Haj, the Children’s Trust CEO, said.

If schools don’t reopen in April, however, increasing demand from essential workers could swamp providers’ ability to accommodate more kids while hewing to the state rules, some experts say.

One operator supported by the Trust, Excel Kids Academy, runs three centers and has consolidated operations at two facilities in Miami Gardens and Liberty City. Because of lower attendance, it has been able to comply with the 10-child maximum for a room, while remaining open for the usual full 12-hour day. To meet separation requirements, it’s been using break rooms and activity rooms, said CEO Shawna Pointville and her staffers, though that has reduced the academy’s working capacity. The different groups of children aren’t supposed to mix, and teachers can’t trade places under the new rules.

So far, though, it’s working, and there are no reported cases of infection, Pointville said — but she can’t guarantee services will be available next week or next month. Just in case services are interrupted, Excel has been sending tablets home with kids so they can keep up with online schoolwork and the enrichment lessons offered by the centers.

“It’s so hard to commit to anything at this time. Every other hour there is a different set of instructions,” she said. “Right now, we’re open, we’re serving the children, and children and staff are well.”

But, she added: “Some parents are really overwhelmed.”

Staving off hunger

Their day-care services are essential in another way: to stave off hunger among kids and keep families connected. Trust-supported programs provide snacks and hot meals.

“What we’re hearing from our child-care owners,” Haj said, is “some people are bringing their kids in because they need to be fed.”

Child-care programs also meet other basic needs. Until public schools closed, the United Way of Miami-Dade operated 28 early-childhood programs. Now that those have been suspended, agency spokeswoman Cristina Blanco said, the United Way is tapping corporate partners and volunteers to put together care packages to deliver to the infants and toddlers and their families that include diapers, wipes and other supplies.

Excel, meanwhile, has kept its chef working to provide meals throughout the day, and some families that have taken their kids out are still stopping by for meals, Pointville said. No one is being turned away. Parents have even pitched in with donations of supplies for cleaning and sterilizing. Excel centers also have a nurse on staff.

Latoya Williams, lead elementary teacher at the Miami Gardens Excel academy, said staffers have been calling families of absent kids to make sure they’re OK and offer assistance.

In the center, they’re also exercising unusual care to meet coronavirus protocols, she said.

“We are more aware. We always took precautions,” Williams said. “Now we’re really drilling and drilling the children: ‘Wash, wash, wash. Make sure you do it.‘ We’re wiping down door knobs all the time. It’s been chaotic, but we’re trying to be a beacon of light.”

The children, especially those old enough to understand something unusual is happening, are fearful and in need of frequent reassurance, Williams said.

“The younger ones don’t really understand, but the older ones are asking questions. They’re afraid. I had one child ask me, ‘Are we going to die?’ It’s a lot of unanswered questions. So we redirect,” Williams said. “I tell them, ‘We’re all a little afraid. But at the end of the day, we’re going to get through this.’ And as long as the children are OK, I’m good.”

The Trust-supported day care has been a lifeline for Maggie Rivera, who works in a medical clinic pharmacy in a correctional setting in south Miami-Dade — a job that fits the definition for essential work (she asked that some details be withheld for security reasons).

A scholarship at a south Miami-Dade child-care center for her two girls, ages 5 and 2, has enabled her to work a steady daytime shift. And although she said her job “is non-ending,” so far she has not been asked to extend her hours or add shifts.

The child-care center her girls attend is carefully following protocols for the coronavirus pandemic, and she has no qualms about leaving the girls there while she and her partner work.

“I think they’re doing a good job. They’re sanitizing, cleaning and limiting people coming in,” Rivera said.

She does worry about what would happen if her working hours expand, or if the center has to close or curtail its services. In that case, she and her partner would have to ask their employers to shift their hours. If her partner can work an earlier shift, she could care for the kids before going to work a bit later than she does now, Rivera said. That’s something she feels sure their employers would have to agree to.

“Me and my partner spoke about it,” she said. “I think they would have no choice. As long as I’m getting my job done, my supervisor would be OK with it. After all, family comes first.”

Miami Herald staff writer Lautaro Grinspan contributed to this report.

Adriana Brasileiro covers environmental news at the Miami Herald. Previously she covered climate change, business, political and general news as a correspondent for the world’s top news organizations: Thomson Reuters, Dow Jones - The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, based in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Paris and Santiago.
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