Micha Webb is learning a new normal as a child care director in the age of the coronavirus pandemic. Webb owns Zion Child Development Center, which applied for a critical child care license in early March 2020 when the pandemic caused nationwide shutdowns. Following CDC regulations, including hosting small pods of students and ensuring social distancing, Zion has tried to balance safety with maintaining a positive learning environment.

For Webb, Zion must be “doing something right” since no student out of 200 has tested positive for COVID-19. While a kitchen worker and teacher were infected, they received it from their husbands and recovered quickly. For Webb, it was extremely difficult watching members of her community get infected and not seeing other members of her community at all.

Part of Zion’s mission is to build strong relationships between parents, students, caregivers and the community, not seeing parents everyday has been hard.

“We miss the connection with parents which is a huge part of our philosophy.”

Parents are not allowed in the building to visit their child. They can pick them up, but mingling with other parents, teachers, and students is no longer an option.

“Parents aren’t allowed in the program. This has cut down on parent communication so much. We are always trying to find new ways to communicate with them, but it’s difficult.”

Zion does everything they can to create a safe environment, and this includes limiting the number of guests in the building, which means less parents.

Dr. Jamie Jeffrey is the Director of KEYS 4 HealthyKids, a grant funded initiative with CAMC Institute located in West Virginia focusing on reducing rates of obesity in children. Jeffrey has been working for decades to ensure children and families have the support they need to live healthier lives.

“We are a partnership of community stakeholders whose goals is to implement healthy eating and active living policy and environmental change initiatives that can support healthier communities for children and families across West Virginia” said Jeffrey.

The Earlier, the Better, funded by The Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, was established in order to increase the quality of child care centers with policy and system level improvements.

“COVID has shined a huge bright light on the disparities in West Virginia and why we need change at the federal level to support these essential workers,” said Jeffrey.

For these reasons, an advocacy group was formed under the umbrella of the Earlier, the Better. This group, partnering with WV Association of Young Children,  is dedicated to ensuring that child care centers “survive COVID and thrive tomorrow.” It focuses primarily on creating policies, such as increased subsidy-reimbursement rates, to keep child care centers open now and in the future.

Helen Post Brown, the owner and director of the Sunbeam Early Learning Center, in Fairmont agrees with Webb’s sentiments. Families could not come into the classrooms let alone the center reception area. There were 10 people in each classroom including the teacher.

“These new policies went against everything we are about. We have family style eating, always working with children in small groups, and prioritize socializing with families,” said Brown.

For Sunbeam, 2020 was supposed to be a celebratory one - 40 years of supporting children and their families. However, COVID halted any celebration and closed the center from March through August.

“We had a hard time wrapping our heads around this,” said Brown who worked through the summer with her team to rebuild policies so families could come back safely.

“The entire staff went through training before we reopened in August. We reduced our classroom size, going from 120 children every day to 60 [to meet social distance CDC guidelines].”

For Brown, it was hard to rethink how her center could function, but staff had to adjust and ensure families were safe.

Not Enough Funds To Keep Us Afloat

Webb and Brown both fear about funding if COVID-19 cases continue to rise, especially if a family can’t afford their spot in the day care for a week.

“We receive subsidiary care and get paid for the amount of days a child attends the center. We are supporting essential families, but we can’t always save a family’s spot if they can’t attend that week. What might legislation look to pay for that child’s spot so low income families don’t have to worry about where they are going to send their child [while they are at work]?” said Webb.

Brown says, “grants are running out. Income isn’t enough to pay our expenses. We can’t make ends meet, and when the grant runs out, I’m not sure what we are going to do.”

While both Webb and Brown are committed to keeping the center open, they hope more funding will come to support quality in the centers and keep them afloat.

While CARES funding helped greatly, Brown believes we need changing policy to have a lasting impact.

“We must focus on policy to create sustainable change for our infrastructure. The Earlier, The Better Stakeholder group was created to make substantial change in early learning centers and build quality, trained staff and directors with quality food and health requirements. I want policy implemented to grow quality programming.”

Child Care Workers Are Essential

Webb believes the pandemic has shown how essential child care workers are. Families are relying on them to take care of their children safely and so essential workers can actually go to work. However, development centers are businesses too and need infrastructure support.

“We are businesses, but our infrastructure for technology was not ready.”

While Webb put in a small grant for Wi-Fi security measures, more support would ensure development centers have everything they need, especially when supporting early learners in the summer months.

When schools let out early in West Virginia, families need somewhere to send their students. Zion supported school aged children throughout the summer, and Webb believes that centers need more support in enhancing relationships between development centers and elementary schools.

“How can child care centers be more involved in supporting school aged children? Technology is a big part of this. We made some steps forward with small grants, but we aren’t prepared to help those school age children.”

Zion Development Center resides in a low income area of West Virginia where many students don’t have Wi-Fi at home. Day care is not only serving as a safe space, but it is acting as a school.

“If students aren’t in school, they aren’t getting anything done at home. We need to think about our low income families who are [a part of the essential workforce]. They are working in restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations. With seven feeder schools in the area, families didn’t have time to get tablets, backpacks or homework. I made some of those stops for families. We made sure these kids had what they needed in and outside of the classroom.”

Webb wishes there was a better bridge between child care workers and elementary schools.

“That is the key to helping a whole lot of kids in the area,” said Webb.

Contact Jamie Jeffrey, MD at Jamie.jeffrey@camc.org to learn more about The Earlier, The Better.

Ashley Lynn Priore is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is also the founder and CEO of Queens Gambit.

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