Parents, daycare providers grapple with uncertainty

Many families at wit’s end juggling work and family

BEFORE THE CORONAVIRUS pandemic hit, April McCarthy, 31, of Chelmsford, was working as a mental health clinician, while a family daycare provider watched her 2-year-old daughter and 7-month-old son.

Then COVID-19 hit and the daycare shut down. McCarthy’s husband works in an essential job for a facilities company servicing Harvard Medical School. McCarthy tried to continue counseling mental health patients from home, but with two young children reliant on her, often singing and screaming in the background, working was impossible and was hurting her mental health.

McCarthy took emergency family medical leave and extended it through June 29, when daycare centers are currently scheduled to reopen. But state officials have not definitively said whether centers will reopen on that date.

McCarthy’s leave runs out after 12 weeks, and she worries that if daycares do not reopen she’ll be back where she started. “There has got to be some clarity or some information,” McCarthy said.

She is frustrated that Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday announced a plan to reopen the economy without full childcare. “They’re expecting businesses to reopen, people to start going back to work, yet they’re not willing to provide them childcare,” McCarthy said.

The state has allowed a network of emergency childcare centers to remain open for children of essential workers, and those centers can now accept any child whose parent must return to work. The centers have capacity for 10,000 children and are currently serving only 3,500. The state also set up a program to match out-of-work childcare workers with families seeking babysitters.

The state’s Department of Early Education and Care is still working on guidelines for when and how other daycares can reopen, which Baker said will be released in the coming weeks. Early Education Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy said the emergency childcare system has plenty of capacity to handle more children as businesses reopen, and state officials are still encouraging families to find alternatives to group care to stem the spread of the virus. She said officials are developing additional health and safety standards to fully reopen childcare.

“I personally feel we’re sort of being strung along and not given real factual answers from the state or anywhere,” said Alyssa Kelley, a family childcare provider in Plymouth.

McCarthy worries about sending her children – who have both had respiratory health issues – to a center where she does not know the provider or the other families.

Sen. Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat who was a legislative observer to the state’s reopening commission, said McCarthy is not alone. He said some parents are anxious about moving their children to a new space and others don’t live near the emergency daycare centers.

Homegrown Daycare at Alyssa Kelley’s home in Plymouth. (Photo courtesy of Alyssa Kelley)

Some state leaders have called for renewed focus on childcare. Parents, families, and providers still need clarity on how child care will function as we go back to work,” Senate President Karen Spilka said in a statement, saying she will continue to push for more details on how many spots are available in emergency centers, how families will be chosen, and how accessible facilities will be. Attorney General Maura Healey also said the Baker administration needs more focus on reopening childcare.

Vanessa Plant, 42, of Medford, is the mother of 3 and 5-year-old girls, who had been attending a private daycare. Plant is the director of philanthropy for a nonprofit, while her husband works for Reebok. Each day the couple wakes up at 6 a.m. with their youngest, and they divide their days into two-hour childcare shifts, sometimes until 10 p.m., working around each of their work schedules. Their kids are uninterested in daycare programming via Zoom.

The 5-year-old is “a mess,” Plant said, noting “she doesn’t have the words to say I’m lonely and I miss my friends and my teacher and I need a routine and a schedule.”

Plant is hesitating to hire a babysitter because of how contagious COVID-19 is, but she will if the state extends the closures past June 29. Plant said her work environment is unsustainable for the long term, and she needs state officials to make an announcement as soon as possible so she can plan ahead rather than scrambling for a solution. “I don’t blame the state for not having more information because there are so many unknowns, but it’s also very hard as a working parent to be able to plan anything,” Plant said.

Rachel Morse, a 41-year-old lawyer from Beverly, has a 3-year-old boy and 20-month-old girl. She and her husband are both working from home. After their children’s daycare closed, they tried caring for their kids while working, and lasted less than two weeks. They hired a babysitter and then got nervous. They took three weeks of paid time off from work before rehiring the babysitter. Morse had planned to send her kids back to daycare as soon as it opened. More recently, she is getting nervous and wondering what it will look like – for example, if her 3-year-old will have to wear a mask.

“I’m really frustrated that churches are open, and daycare wasn’t a topic of conversation,” Morse said.

“I don’t envy the people making these decisions,” Morse said. But, she added, “I wish they were better at articulating what they’re doing to reach the right answers.”

Daycare providers say they too want more information, though many are less concerned about when to reopen than how.

Keira Durrett, director of the Williston Northampton Children’s Center in Easthampton, does not plan to reopen until September. But she wants to prepare. “All that planning that goes into a program starts months ahead of time,” Durrett said.

Durrett said centers need time to revamp their spaces, if the state puts new limits on how many children can be in a space. Centers need time to stockpile cleaning supplies and protective equipment, which can be hard to get. They must retrain staff and find money to pay them during training. Durrett’s center furloughed its teachers during the shutdown, since it is not collecting tuition.

Shawna Tobin, director of Sunnyside, a childcare center in Northampton, worries that if centers are forced to reduce capacity under new guidelines, they will not earn enough money to survive.  “All of us are waiting to see what the augmented health and safety regulations will be,” Tobin said. “I’m not as focused on a date as [learning] here are the specifics of the guidelines we believe will be safe.”

Gina Tiberio Hamilton, a family childcare provider in Shrewsbury, said she does not want the state to rush to reopen. “I don’t want to put anybody at risk so I would rather them take their time versus rushing it,” Hamilton said. “It’s not as simple as the justification that parents have to go to work. We’re dealing with children and their safety and their health.”

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

But she is also concerned about what new rules will look like. Hamilton has been urging state regulators to acknowledge that family childcare providers, who operate out of their homes, are different from larger centers. Family providers often work alone and in small spaces. So they cannot necessarily keep kids six feet apart at mealtimes or greet children outside at staggered arrival times.

Without state guidelines about reopening, Kelley, the Plymouth family childcare provider, said she is losing preparation time. She worries about rumors of excessive new regulations. “It is sounding like we’ll have to rework our entire program in every aspect — enrollment numbers, space requirements, equipment, planned curriculums. Obviously, that will take time,” she said.