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Two-year-old Kaia Vegas, center, smiles as she and her mother Kalelia Vegas, right, are greeted by Clayton Early Learning staff member Tran Nguyen, left, during a food and supplies distribution on April 17, 2020, in Denver's Clayton neighborhood. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

As Becky Crowe plots the reopening of Clayton Early Learning’s 20-acre campus that shut down in March to help slow the spread of the new coronavirus, she said it’s almost like playing “a grand game of whack-a-mole.”

“The second you address one problem, there’s like three others that pop up,” said Crowe, president and CEO of the Denver school for young children.

And she’s not playing the game alone.

With more people heading back to work under Gov. Jared Polis’ new “safer-at-home” directive, early childhood learning centers and day cares expect to finally have enough kids in their classes reopen. Although child care facilities were never required to close during the statewide coronavirus shut down, many opted to pause operations. Others stayed open with help from the Colorado Emergency Child Care Collaborative, which, through May 17, will pair children of essential workers with child care providers.

When they do open again, early childhood learning centers and day cares will have to follow stricter health and safety guidelines and, with a limit of 10 children in one room, many won’t be able to serve as many children as they typically do. The changes, while necessary to follow state law, could take a further financial toll on child care facilities that are already hurting after closing or staying open to care for fewer children than normal.

Clayton Early Learning volunteer Julie Clark hands out toys to 3-year-old Jacquline Hagedon, center, and her 5-year-old brother D.J. Davis, right, as they and members of their family receive food, toys and supplies during a distribution at the Clayton Early Learning campus on April 17, 2020, in Denver. About 200 cars received their share of hundreds of items distributed by staff and others who volunteered amid the closure of both programs. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“It’s the right public health decision and at the same time I think there are going to be some significant challenges in responding to the demand for care given that we will have less licensed capacity in order to accommodate social distancing guidelines,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

The Colorado Office of Early Childhood, housed under the Colorado Department of Human Services, doesn’t have a full picture of the number of child care centers that closed in response to the pandemic. However, a statewide survey the office administered netted 2,600 responses among 4,789 licensed facilities total. Of those that responded, about 1,400 said they closed in response to Gov. Jared Polis’ stay-at-home order in March, human services spokeswoman Madlynn Ruble said.

Many cited low attendance as a reason for closing, Ruble said.

But Amber Bilby, president of the Colorado Association of Family Child Care, thinks the state’s estimate is low. She said about half of the 1,600 licensed in-home day cares in the state closed.

Bilby said she personally knows at least three providers who were on the verge of retirement and decided to shut down their businesses early with the onset of the pandemic.

Staff member Brandi Martin carries a tray of fresh food items to a waiting vehicle during a food and supplies distribution on the early learning program’s campus on April 17, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It’s not clear how many child care centers plan to reopen on Monday or throughout the week, but Ruble said the state is asking centers to notify it if and when they reopen so that it can track the developments.

Early childhood learning centers and daycares must implement changes to operate safely, so Jaeger isn’t sure how many will be able to open as soon as this week.

Kristi Koltiska, executive director of the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado, worries less about child care facilities reopening and more about their survival. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, many providers were surviving, but “weren’t necessarily a thriving business,” she said.

She’s concerned that the providers who were just scraping by will fold.

Colorado faces a dilemma, Jaeger said. Child care is required for people to return to work and jump-start the economy. At the same time, providers say their costs are rising.

“The fact that we need more child care and we will have less child care to offer is going to make it more difficult for people to get back to work when they’re eager to do so,” Jaeger said.

Sustaining operations beyond reopening

Among the new protocols that the state is issuing for child care facilities is a mandate that staff wear face masks and gloves. Children over the age of 3 should also wear masks, Ruble said.

Finding masks for such young children will be one challenge, and ensuring they keep their masks on will be another, providers say.

The state also is asking facilities not to allow groups of children to mix during the day and that they implement social distancing when possible. Child care facilities must also close for at least 24 hours if a child, parent or staff member has a positive or suspected case of the coronavirus.

More guidance will likely be released on Monday, Ruble said.

Child care providers have a variety of questions that so far are unanswered.

Boxes of diapers sit on the ground after being emptied as part of a food and supplies distribution at the Clayton Early Learning campus on April 17, 2020, in Denver. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

May 11 is the earliest date Clayton Early Learning — which closed on March 13 after learning several staff members had been exposed to coronavirus — could reopen, Crowe said. The center, which serves about 200 children from 6 weeks old to 5 years old across 16 classrooms on its campus and makes home visits to 118 families, would ramp operations back up in a staggered way. Crowe envisions a hybrid approach in which it will work with some families directly on campus and serve others through ongoing remote learning and support.

Crowe said an internal task force is fleshing out a reentry plan, which will take a couple weeks to finalize as the center works to understand how to balance the proper safety precautions with the needs of both families and staff.

It’s clear that Clayton Early Learning can’t accommodate its typical capacity under the public health guidelines, Crowe said.

Along with considering how to reduce the total number of children in a classroom, Crowe’s team has serious considerations within its workforce. It must take into account the number of teachers with pre-existing conditions who won’t be able to work directly with children and the number of teachers who have school-aged children needing care. 

The center is gathering data from its teachers about what they would need to have in place to return to work. For teachers with school-aged kids, the center is contemplating opening a classroom on campus where students could complete their virtual learning while their parents care for children who attend Clayton Early Learning, Crowe said.

Crowe estimates Clayton Early Learning could, at most, serve half of its typical population.  

“That raises a lot of questions around what criteria you use to develop the priority list for who is able to access the care,” Crowe said.

Toys and games sit in boxes before being distributed to waiting cars during a food and supplies distribution at the Clayton Early Learning campus on April 17, 2020, in Denver. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Mile High Early Learning, which has nine locations in Denver, is trying to navigate its way through many of the same adjustments. The center, which also closed all locations in March and reopened one for emergency child care for Denver police officers, last communicated to families that it would reopen on May 4, said Pamela Harris, president and CEO.

Harris said the center won’t just turn the lights back on.

“It’s not just about reopening the doors,” she said. “It’s about reimagining what our services look like and how we sustain them.”

Should Mile High Early Learning, which caters to 7,000 children a year through its early learning centers, drop-in centers and a community outreach program, have more kids to care for than what the new regulations will allow, it would explore the possibility of sending some of its children to other child care facilities with capacity.

Attendance has generally been down for providers who have stayed open, Harris said, and she sees an opportunity “to create more partnerships with community providers.”

Mile High Early Learning, which is following guidance provided by Denver Health, also is developing a new process for checking in children, ensuring the center has enough supplies and equipment needed for reopening, and what social distancing in a preschool classroom looks like.

Harris said it will take more time to check children in and out. The center must screen children twice a day for the coronavirus, taking their temperature and evaluating symptoms like cough, fever and shortness of breath.

Guidance from Denver Health also recommends that centers screen staff members for a fever, Harris said.

Clayton Early Learning research associate Jenna Gottschalk picks out fresh food packages to distribute to waiting cars. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Both Clayton Early Learning and Mile High Early Learning, which together serve close to 2,000 families living at or below the federal poverty line, also are partnering to offer weekly distribution of food, essentials like diapers and wipes, and provide at-home learning kits. At a recent distribution event, they gave away about 3,300 meals.

Facing “a torrential downpour”

Prior to the pandemic, preschool classrooms were allowed to have 22 children with two adults, Jaeger said.

With the new enrollment restriction, “you are literally more than cutting in half the number of children allowed to be in a preschool classroom at any one time,” he said.

That comes with constraints related to space, a center’s workforce and cost, he added.

Harris, of Mile High Early Learning, estimates that decreasing the number of children cared for to 10 from 16 will translate into a yearly loss of $86,000 per classroom. “It keeps me up at night,” she said.

Some of more than a dozen vehicles line up on the campus of Clayton Early Learning at the start of a food and supplies distribution on April 17, 2020, in Denver. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

She took over leadership of the center in 2009 and feels fortunate to have steered it through one economic downtown. She also draws confidence from the center’s savings. It has been saving for this “rainy day,” Harris said, though “this is a torrential downpour more than a rainy day.”

Clayton Early Learning is in a solid financial position, thanks to state and federal funding along with contributions from private donors, Crowe said. However, given the uncertainty in the economy, likely cuts to next year’s state budget and the stock market’s negative effect on foundations’ endowments, the child care center is taking a conservatitive approach to its bottom line.

Colorado is receiving more than $42 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act for child care, Ruble said.

Under an executive order from Polis, CDHS accessed additional federal dollars under the Child Care and Development Fund to reimburse counties that pay providers through the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program for absences or closures caused by the coronavirus, she said. The Child Care and Development Fund, which helps low-income families afford child care, was increased through the CARES Act.

Clayton Early Learning IT staffer Ricci Johnson makes one last count of boxes of food bound for delivery to 19 Clayton program participants and their families. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Funds are distributed based on absences, and counties decide how many absences to cover, Ruble said.

Additionally, the state is expanding assistance for families who access child care with CCAP dollars. Parents looking for employment can now receive subsidized care for six months, up from three months. The state is also extending eligibility for families currently enrolled in the program from 12 months to 15 months.

Other child care providers don’t have as much cushion. In a survey conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children last month, a third of 85 Colorado child care providers said they would not survive a closure of more than two weeks without “significant public investment and support.”

Beverly Maxwell kept her child care center, the Advantage Learning Center in Lakewood, open as long as she could. Attendance dropped from 92 children to fewer than 10 spread over three age groups before it closed on March 27. 

“We just could not afford to remain open,” Maxwell said.

Closing has hurt Maxwell’s finances. She paid her 22 staff members a two-week emergency leave after the center stopped taking children and has had to pay bills throughout April while collecting no income.

Still, Maxwell is optimistic. She plans to reopen in May, helped by a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan that will give her some flexibility in her ability to pay staff even with the loss of tuition dollars.

She does expect a dramatic reduction in income as the center adjusts to no more than 10 children in a room. But she also knows that with fewer people returning to work, the demand for child care will be down.

Clayton Early Learning associate teacher Celeste Barron-Nicoletti counts out freshly cooked hot meals to distribute to waiting cars during a food and supplies distribution. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Jaeger noted that, with higher unemployment rates and parents still working from home, it’s not yet clear what demand for child care looks like as Colorado moves into Polis’ safer-at-home order.

As for the future of Maxwell’s center, all she sees right now is a question mark.

“You think you’ve got the answer,” she said. “You think you have a path and then something else happens. Assuming the stay-safer-at-home order is successful and people gradually re-enter the workforce, we feel that we’re fully equipped to handle that and move forward. Should there be a complete shutdown of the country and the economy again, we don’t know.”