PORT ORCHARD — Seven toddlers, ages 2 to 3, played on the floor of their classroom Tuesday at Noah's Ark Daycare. Masking tape squares on the carpet marked areas in which each child was to sit to maintain social distancing, a recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for child care centers to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
"Hey, Evan, where's your square?" teacher Diana Gromling asked in a cheerful voice, as one little guy ventured beyond the boundary.
He quickly scooted back inside his square and continued playing with a toy truck. In ordinary times, there could be up to 14 children and two caregivers in this classroom. But these aren't ordinary times.
Now that the county has moved into Phase 2 of the state's coronavirus recovery plan, Kitsap families returning to work will find child care centers — if they're even open — operating at reduced capacity because of COVID-19 precautions.
The pandemic has pounded an already precarious industry in which center owners operate on tight margins in the best of times, with most workers barely make a living wage and spaces at a premium.
Unlike some centers that closed during the height of the pandemic, Noah's Ark stayed open to serve children whose parents were deemed essential workers and others who had to work. Operating at less than half the usual enrollment, the center struggled financially, said director Amanda McKenney. Cleaning supplies were hard to get, and new protocols to curtail the transmission of COVID-19, like health screenings for all staff and children, complicated the daily routine and added to operating costs.
Many centers succumbed to those pressures and closed at least temporarily.
Across the state, 1,279 child care programs with the combined capacity to serve 59,369 children were closed as of Tuesday, according to Child Care Aware of Washington, a nonprofit child care advocacy group that also helps families find child care. In Kitsap, 48 programs were reported closed, including 19 centers, 12 family child care programs and 17 school-age programs.
"Our understanding is that almost all of the closures are related to COVID," said Marcia Jacobs, spokeswoman for Child Care Aware. "We don't know if these closures are permanent or not."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, with other Congressional Democrats, has introduced a bill to stabilize the child care sector with an infusion of $50 billion into the existing Child Care and Development Block Grant program. McKenney with other regional providers recently participated in a conference call with Murray to explain their plight.
“I’ve heard from child care providers, child care workers and parents from across our state who desperately need support right now," Murray said. "It’s clear that we absolutely need to increase funding to ensure consistent access to safe, high-quality child care — otherwise millions of parents across Kitsap County, Washington state and the rest of the country will struggle to return to work.”
A survey of providers by Child Care Aware showed 45% had considered closing their business for good. Closures since the onset of the pandemic represent the loss of about 30% of the state's child care slots, "and that's not even taking into account fewer slots based on guidelines of the CDC," said Deeann Puffert, CEO of Child Care Aware.
Money in the Child Care is Essential Act would be available to help providers pay their staff, provide tuition and co-payment relief for families, and to promote the health and safety of children and staff.
But will $50 billion be enough to shore up child care until the pandemic is behind us? Murray's office cites recent estimates from the National Women's Law Center that show it would take at least $9.6 billion per month to keep child care providers in business.
Murray says the pandemic relief bill is not a substitute for comprehensive child care reform. The Child Care for Working Families Act, which she co-sponsored, would help more low- and middle-class families access child care assistance. The bill, introduced in 2017, remains under debate in Congress.
Murray in December helped secure $20 million in the National Defense Authorization Act for child care construction at military installations, $2.1 million of which will go toward a renovation of the Jackson Park child development center.
The $50 billion pandemic aid bill, if approved by Congress, would come on top of $3.5 billion for child care and early learning that was part of the CARES Act. Of that, $58 million went to Washington state.
The Department of Children, Youth & Families has accepted grant applications from child care providers for more than $28 million in CARES Act aid. Another $24.4 million in CARES Act funding went to support Working Connections Child Care, a state-subsidized program, which is waiving family co-payments and since March extended full-day care to school-age children since schools have closed.
McKenney hopes to receive an $11,000 grant from the DCYF, but the uncertainty of how long she'll be operating at reduced capacity has her worried about the bottom line.
"It's definitely a concern," she said. "I had some money saved for some projects. I didn't know I'd be using it for a pandemic."
And she worries about her families. Some who can work from home or who have teens at home to watch their siblings have disenrolled for the summer. In some cases, McKenney hasn't been able to guarantee their spots. Right now, she only has two available spots with the COVID-19 prevention restrictions.
"That's really hard because child care is really hard to find," she said. "I wish I was able to be more flexible."
Puffert says centers are likely to struggle with reopening because of the limits on enrollment driven by CDC guidelines. Center directors like McKenney are adapting daily as their numbers grow amid the new protocols. Employers are deliberating on when to call their staff back to the office. And parents are weighing the risks and benefits of resuming child care, especially if they have vulnerable people in the home.
"Everybody is sort of in this difficult scramble right now," Puffert said. "It's a very complex thing, especially when you have your beloved child in the middle of it all and a profession that puts children's safety very centrally important."
Back at Noah's Ark, one of the kids in Gromling's class popped a plastic toy in his mouth. She kindly took it and tossed it in container with other items she'd later sterilize. Among the center's new safety protocols, they've done away with dress-up clothing and other soft playthings that can't be easily washed. Part of Gromling's day now includes frequent cleaning of classroom "touchpoints."
"It's a lot more work," she said. "It's worth it, though. That way they don't get sick."
Masks are recommended by the CDC "when feasible," but Noah's Ark found it difficult to get the children to comply. Staff don't routinely wear masks, as it's important developmentally for children, especially infants, to see a person's full facial expression, McKenney said.
Parents weighing whether it's safe to send their child back to a child care program should ask questions about new protocols and safety practices, Puffert said. Ultimately, it's an individual decision.
"We all wish there was a right answer but in the midst of all this, I'm not sure there is one," Puffert said. "Everyone has got to figure out what's best for them."
Chris Henry reports on education and community news for the Kitsap Sun. Reach her at (360) 792-9219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Support coverage of local news by signing up today for a digital subscription.