Battle Creek

Importance of childcare system highlighted during COVID-19 crisis, Battle Creek providers say

As the massive impact of the coronavirus is assessed the future of childcare centers in Calhoun County is not likely to be foremost in people's minds. But it should be, say owners of these centers and those who provide support services to centers that were part of an already fragile system even before the pandemic. 

Kathleen Moore, who has been working in early childhood education for nine years and is the Executive Director of the Battle Creek Shared Services Alliance, says there is a societal tendency to overlook the critical nature of childcare centers as an important part of the economic infrastructure. She says the inability to secure quality, affordable childcare is among the reasons that people leave the workforce.

“In our area, we’ve got a lot of employers who will acknowledge that childcare is one of the hurdles employees face in keeping their employment,” Moore says. 

For her, a recent “aha” moment came during one of President Trump’s earlier coronavirus update press conferences.

“It was acknowledged that schools would need to remain closed, but when Dr. Anthony Fauci was asked about childcare centers he looked at the team of people behind him and said ‘Yes, this is something that probably should be addressed'.”

Moore says this was an example to her of how little attention or acknowledgment the issue of childcare is receiving.

“I get that these are people who never had to rely on childcare or never needed it,” Moore says. “It really highlighted for me that childcare was an afterthought. As we get ready for a reboot, we can’t afford for it to be an afterthought.

“We can’t charge families fees high enough to actually cover all of the costs that would create a system that's really flush with money to operate at a secure level. We’ve got childcare workers making $11 an hour taking care of children all day and what families are paying is not enough to cover all of the costs for quality childcare.”

The majority of childcare centers bring in just enough money to pay workers wages, but not increase them, and don’t have much, if anything left, for professional development opportunities.

The organization Moore leads, Battle Creek Shared Services Alliance, provides services such as centralized billing and enrollment services, professional development, a trained substitute worker pool, technical assistance, and professional development to childcare centers that pay a monthly membership fee.

“The goal is to provide these services to a group of childcare centers at a cheaper cost than they’d be paying if they had to do this themselves,” Moore says. “We have five licensed centers that we’re working with and we’re working at adding more centers and home providers.”

For a system that was fragile to begin with, Moore says it’s even more so now. She says she hopes that there will be some real conversations at the legislative level about what childcare means for the country and how it can be better supported, such as models that share the costs with businesses, the government, and families.

The YMCA is providing childcare to families of essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have over time disregarded the importance of the early years,” Moore says. “There’s all kinds of science that tells us about the importance of a child’s first years and the corresponding price tags that people aren’t willing to pay.

“We have a lot of people who understand and know the science, but they don’t have the will.”

When the state-mandated Stay at Home orders took effect centers caring for the children of essential workers were the only ones that remained open. They include the Battle Creek Family YMCA, the Learning Zone Preschool and Childcare in Battle Creek, and Kid’s Time in Athens, according to Moore.

Moore says the emergence of funding sources is now driving the conversation from not reopening to what it will look like when these centers do reopen. She says the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act is among funding sources that may provide some additional support for childcare centers.

“There continues to be some funding that comes from different places. We’re keeping a close eye on that,” Moore says. “We’re staying pretty hopeful and the center directors are staying busy. They’re making phone calls and offering resources to families.”

Moore says the majority of the childcare centers her organization assists closed because they didn’t have enough families who were deemed essential workers and other centers had the spaces to care for the children of essential workers. 

While the state’s Department of Health and Human Services is providing payments through the end of this month to each of the centers for children they were caring for who qualified for DHHS childcare subsidies, Moore says she doesn’t know if these payments will continue.

The YMCA is providing childcare to families of essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is the only real income they have coming in right now,” she says. “I am hearing from providers that they have lost the majority of their income and are wondering if they’ll have enough families and staff coming back once they are able to reopen.

“A couple of our centers have said that if the demand for childcare increases they would consider reopening. We know that people are going to need these slots when they go back to work again. But, the centers also have to make sure they have enough staff that would feel comfortable showing up for work again.”

Throughout the shutdown, Angie Torres, executive director with Young Child Associates, says she has been keeping in touch with the parents of children enrolled at Stars and Stripes Learning Station, 100 N. Washington Avenue, and Paws and Stripes Learning Center, 711 Riverside Drive. The centers are operated by YCA, a nonprofit that provides quality childcare to the children of employees including Grace Health, the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center, and the Kellogg Co.

Torres says both centers have set May 4 as a tentative date to reopen.

“We’ve only heard of two families who will not be returning,” she says. “I know reopening for our centers and others will be tough for a while until people feel comfortable coming back out of their homes. Even if we do open up on May 4 it may be a couple of months until we’re fully enrolled.”

The centers, which are open year round, had 51 staff who were caring for an average of 155 infants and toddlers and children up to 12-years-old, who were participating in their summer camp program.

To accommodate families of school-age children, whose school year has already ended, Torres says they may open their summer camp program early so that children have a place to go as their parents go back to work.

Even though about 75 percent of the revenue for each center is generated by tuition paid by families, Paws and Stripes also receives money from the Kellogg Co. which is used for rent and utilities. And it receives funding from the General Services Administration, an independent agency of the federal government, which covers the cost of most everything else such as utilities and maintenance of the building not covered by tuition at Stars and Stripes.

Despite the financial assistance, Torres says she has not been able to pay her staff, many of whom filed for unemployment when Stay at Home orders forced the closure of the centers.

Providing care in a virtual space

Those childcare and early learning centers that are serving some of the area’s most vulnerable children and families are continuing to connect virtually while also providing educational materials and food that is being delivered by staff.

Helen Pau, the Lead Teacher at a Head Start program which runs September to June operated through the Community Action Agency, says for the past few weeks, she and other staff have been putting together commodity boxes and educational packets that are being delivered to the families of children they serve. Pau has a total of 26 children in her morning and afternoon classes.

“We go to the center to pick up packages and deliver all the food and educational materials to their homes,” Pau says. “Most of the parents are very low-income so they don’t always have materials and supplies. One parent said they were looking for diapers and wipes and we talked about how we can provide those. It alleviates a lot of stress for them.”

The educational packets include two or three activities that parents can do with their children. Some of the more recent deliveries included materials to make a Big Green Monster, a book, coloring pages, and crayons, and bags of beads and pipe cleaners.

The day after the deliveries are made, Pau calls the parents to see if they have any questions about the delivery and to see how they’re doing.

“The parents really depend on these services and we try to provide the services they need,” Pau says. “We want them to feel that the center can be relied on and depended on. Our center is a second home for these parents and kids.”

In addition to this outreach, videos are posted on a YouTube channel which give children the opportunity to participate in activities such as singing or dancing. Pau says teachers recently danced along to a video about going on a bear hunt that their students were able to watch.

Teachers in each of the seven Head Start classrooms also participate in video calls with the children.

“I just believe that it’s so important for us teachers to keep making connections,” Pau says. “By sending materials home and video activities and calls at least we are able to let the kids know that ‘my teacher is still here for me'.”

Kathy Szenda Wilson, co-executive director of BC Pulse, which works with early childhood stakeholders to build out supportive systems for families, says the pandemic added an additional layer of concern about a childcare system that was already fragile, particularly for vulnerable populations.

In addition to the stress caused by job losses as businesses and organizations adhered to state guidelines, Szenda Wilson says families are managing the challenges of raising children and in some cases becoming their teacher in a close environment.

“Abuse and domestic violence increases in tough times and we don’t have access to families to know when this is happening,” she says. “If a child shows up at pre-school with a bruise, you have other eyes on it. There’s no way to gauge that now.”

She says she is grateful that programs such as Head Start and those offered through the Calhoun County Intermediate School District “kicked into high gear and shifted what was a lot of face time with families into virtual calls.

“Home visitors and preschool teachers who are staying in touch with families virtually, are now equipping themselves with tools and approaches on how to identify and potentially reduce the risk of abuse and neglect. Through conversations with organizations such as the Burma Center and VOCES, they understand what they should be listening for and how they can have safe conversations about what’s going on at home.”

For several years, in her role with BC Pulse Szenda Wilson has been giving presentations and leading workshops around healing-centered engagement, helping families with young children to learn about resilience, and what resilience looks like. Now, more than ever, she says families need to understand the importance of good nutrition, exercise, and staying connected to their physical and mental well-being.

“Even a phone call will work. It doesn’t have to be virtual,” she says.

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.