Child care businesses in Michigan are still shut down as part of Governor Whitmer's "Stay Safe, Stay Home" executive order, except for those caring for children of essential workers.
Rebooting this industry will be essential for the recovery of the state’s economy. But child care administrators say it will likely be a painfully slow process, and require the creation of a “new normal,” for kids, parents, and workers.
Pam Gee is the owner of A Child's Place, a home day care in Ann Arbor. Since her business was almost completely shut down during the pandemic, she's been using her regular walks around the neighborhood to maintain important relationships with her families.
One of those families is the Insolera family: dad Ryan, mom, Noura, 6 year olds Mack and Jonas, and newborn Eliza. They all come out to greet Gee, wearing masks (all except Eliza, of course.)
They’ve all been home together since mid March. It’s a huge change. But they say Pam Gee’s visits have helped the boys adjust.
“She drops off crafts and we have a weekly zoom meeting," says Noura. Adds Ryan: "We’ve dropped some letters off for Pam and (her husband and business partner) Dave."
"Yes, pen pals down the street!," Noura chimes in.
Ryan Insolara’s paid leave has pretty much run out, so he’s going back to work soon at a biomedical research lab at the University of Michigan. Noura’s maternity leave ends in mid June. If child care centers aren’t open by then?
"We’ve been trying to figure it out, but there’s so much uncertainty -- as soon as you have something figured out it all gets washed away," says Ryan.
They know having the kids back in child care will come with risk. All of a sudden, their family bubble will open up to other family bubbles. Noura says it’s reassuring to know the other families well.
"In this case, it's a little more intimate," she says. "We can have meetings with all the parents, and trust that everyone’s doing their part to stay safe."
The new baby properly admired, Pam Gee waves goodbye, and after a couple more visits, it’s back to her home, where she has a license to care for up to 12 kids.
Gee says when the pandemic hit, she lost all her business overnight, except for one child -- a two-year-old whose mom is an essential health care worker.
"I mean, I naively thought, okay, out of work, out of school for two or three weeks, and then things will be back to normal," she says.
When that didn’t happen, Gee had to lay off her employees except for one. They’re on unemployment. She hates that, but no revenue, no payroll.
In the meantime, Gee is taking webinars that draw on CDC and other expert guidance on how to reopen. There will be a lot of changes: temperature and health checks for the whole family, staggered drop off and pick up times, parents saying goodbye at the front door. No more mingling for the whole group of kids at certain parts of the day or outside.
"The older kids are used to seeing the babies," Gee says. "But we’re going to have to stay in small groups, even eating meals in small groups."
Similar changes will happen at larger child care centers. The goal is to minimize risk and make things if not completely safe, at least safer.
"Because everyone’s worried, they’re scared," says Dorothy Morris, owner of Dorothy's Discovery Day Care in Ypsilanti, which is down from 75 kids to 25, all children of essential workers.
Those kids, because of their parents' higher risk, could pass on that risk to other kids once they start coming back. So they'll remain as a group, with the same teachers, "and as the next group of children comes, instead of flowing into that group, we’ll start up a new classroom," says Morris.
Morris was able to keep half her workers on payroll, with the help of a federal loan, and a state grant. But figuring out who got laid off – that was hard.
"I started out asking if they had any family members that they needed to take care of. Were any of them at risk, if they didn’t feel comfortable coming to work," she says.
That was the case for LaTonya Hansford, an employee at Dorothy's for the past 12 years. Her mom became seriously ill with COVID-19. So Hansford went from caring for little kids to caring for her mom.
"I needed to get her medication, communicate with her doctors, cook for her, clean for her, give the essential things that she’s not able to do by herself," Hansford says.
Luckily, her mom is recovering. Hansford says it will be good to get called back.
"I miss them dearly," she says. "This is part of your everyday life, so when that’s gone, you miss that. You miss that."
Pam Gee and Dorothy Morris both figure their families will return in a slow trickle. That’s if there’s no second wave of outbreaks. So they’re keeping expectations on the low side for now.
"I can’t wait til we get to the day when, we can kind of look back, and go, whoo! Well, that was a doozy," says Morris. "Let me tell you about that!"
Can we hear an "Amen?"