Questions As N.H.'s Childcare Centers Consider Reopening

May 11, 2020

Credit Wikimedia

While some childcare centers in New Hampshire have stayed open during the pandemic, others have shuttered and are now considering reopening.

We'll discuss what factors centers are weighing as they make this difficult decision and talk about what the reopening process will look like.

Air date: Tuesday, May 12, 2020. 


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Transcript

  This is a computer-generated transcript and may contain errors. 

Laura Knoy: 

From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Laura Knoy, and this is The Exchange. As New Hampshire begins to reopen slices of the economy, parents called back to work may have to make new childcare arrangements. While some day care centers serving essential workers remained in operation during the pandemic, many providers shut down. Now some are planning on resuming their work, although their timetables for opening for nonessential workers vary. That's because childcare centers have a lot to work out before their doors open. Gauging what the demand will be, putting new health procedures in place, and figuring out staffing. Today on The Exchange, we're looking at childcare. And we begin with Chris Tappan. She's associate commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services in New Hampshire. And Chris Tappan, welcome. Good to have you.

Chris Tappan:
Good morning, Laura.

Laura Knoy:
I want to start with a question we received on NHPR's listener survey from Jane, who asks, what are the rules for childcare centers right now with Stay at Home 2.0? Jane says, which centers are allowed to be open and who is allowed to send their kids? And, Jane, it's a great question. Go ahead, Chris, please.

Chris Tappan:
Sure. So, Laura, I'd like to start with saying I'm grateful to be here and have the opportunity to talk about childcare. It's such an important topic. Childcare is so essential to our economy and to the health and well-being of New Hampshire's children and families and frankly, to the communities in which they live. I'd like to take a moment to recognize how difficult and disruptive the COVID-19 pandemic has been for childcare providers and for parents and for children, too. Prior to COVID-19, our childcare system in New Hampshire did have some challenges related to issues like accessibility, affordability, and child care pay for professionals as well, and COVID-19 has unfortunately magnified those challenges. When we talk about the health care system in New Hampshire, we need to recognize it is complex. Child care includes childcare center s, which can be non-profit. They can be for profit. They can be faith based. We also mean Head Start and Early Head Start, family health care providers, after school programs and day in summer camp as well.

Laura Knoy:
So a whole panoply of providers, Chris. Yeah. So. So who can be open right now and who can send their kids? For a while, it was just limited amounts of centers could be open and only to essential workers. So what's the story right now, as Jane asks?

Chris Tappan:
Great. So over the last couple of years, we have built some really deep and broad partnerships across child care. And we had conducted a needs assessment and really came to understand these challenges and built relationships prior to COVID. What we were able to do, Laura, in a very short time is the governor on March 26 established the Emergency Child Care Collaborative, which set a framework for us to stand up the emergency child care program. So currently we're operating under that emergency health care program. What we've done, we initially started with about one hundred and twenty five programs that applied to this effort. They completed an application, takes about fifteen minutes online, asks a variety of questions related to their center dynamics, their staffing, what ages of children they can take, what kind of needs they may have for supplies. And those kinds of things. I am excited to share with you that today we actually have almost 400 programs that have received that designation. We've actually increased over 100 just in the last week once the governor announced the expansion of other industries to come back to work. These programs, once they're accepted, have been eligible to receive not only weekly incentive grants that have been targeted at their ability to increase wages for child care workers, but also to support their operational needs, particularly supplies, supplies that they need for cleaning and maintaining a safe environment.

Laura Knoy:
So just to be clear, the centers that are now allowed to be open and I'm glad Jane asked the question because, you know, things are shifting so quickly. So you're saying, Chris, that today we have four hundred programs that have applied for the ability to be open? Is that what you're saying?

Chris Tappan:
Yes, we have three hundred ninety five programs that have actually received the designation as of this weekend. Two hundred and ninety one of those centers are currently opening and they're serving around 6000 children. And we estimate that we actually have an impact of about a thousand additional vacant slots. The challenge, as I mentioned earlier, is that accessibility is factored in for a variety of things. So accessibility is how old is your child? Where is a local daycare center? What is the proximity of that to your workplace, which could be shifting during this time of COVID? So certainly having this availability is great. But what we plan to do is continue to use a couple of different sets of data to make sure that we're lining up the reopening or expansion of the childcare programs and system to be in line with what people's needs are, so we have been working for the last year or so with New Hampshire employment security, really digging deeply into economic mobility and how to help parents go to work and make sure that their kids are in safe, stable and nurturing environments. And obviously, childcare is key to that. So over the last couple of weeks, we've actually dug deep with New Hampshire employment security into data they have from individuals who filed for unemployment. What are their childcare needs? And they've been able to share with us some really important data that helps us understand things like we learned that 26 percent of all grocery store employees actually have childcare needs. And when you couple that with the wages that are often in groceries and other kinds of similar industries, we know that accessibility and affordability could be challenges. So we've really targeted our incentives for the providers. We're also dedicating the funding that we have available right now through the federal government, through the CARES Act, towards also paying co-pays for parents and actually keeping childcare scholarships open in childcare centers. Even when children aren't attending right now.

Laura Knoy:
So trying to make it work financially. I'm just trying to clarify. So you're trying to make it work financially, recognizing that someone who works at a grocery store right now, they may be on unemployment. If they went back to that grocery store and they had to pay for childcare, it just would be better for them to stay on unemployment. Is that what you're saying, Chris?

Chris Tappan:
That's one of the challenges. And so we're really trying to look at all the options by funding the providers, by recognizing their need to pay their staff reasonable wages, and then also to look at employees who are returning to work or may be experiencing childcare needs for the first time. So we know that in our health care workforce, oftentimes individuals may be a two parent or two partner home, one works one during the day and one work at night. They may not have that flexibility now. So along with businesses who are helping out with that, we're also helping out to pay the childcare fees.

Laura Knoy:
So speaking of essential workers and health care workers for sure have been essential from the start. And as you said, many child care centers remained open to serve that population. Getting to our listener's second question, who is allowed to send their kids now, for example, some retailers are opening up partially. If I work in retail and I've been called back to work and I want to go, am I now allowed to send my kids to a child care center?

Chris Tappan:
So under the emergency child care program, programs are eligible to serve essential workers and then any additional workers that have been identified in the follow up emergency order, so emergency order number 40 identified those additional industries. And yes, those individuals can also send their children to child care.

Laura Knoy:
You know, it's interesting, Chris, in Vermont, the governor said that child care centers for non-essential workers, again, can open up June 1st. In Massachusetts, it's the end of June. Wow. June 30th. So it doesn't sound like, Chris, New Hampshire has a specific date.

Chris Tappan:
We are open. We were not one of those states that ever closed childcare. And that enables us, frankly, to keep really some childcare access open and available across the state. And now our ability to expand back and really just move as best as we can, move back in to what is a normal functioning we need with the child care system. That's what our intentions do. I say that, though, with a recognition, Laura, that our child care providers face some challenges with the new CDC guidelines that they're needing to follow in terms of ensuring a safe environment. We do expect them to have needs. So we're looking to potentially use the funding that we have available through the CARES Act for stabilization and recovery grants. And to really focus on the infrastructure that they may need to help to coordinate care in the ways that we were talking about before COVID, but really are accelerated now.

Laura Knoy:
So they'll need some assistance from the state. And it sounds like they're going to get it with all the new health protocols we'll have to put in place, Chris, just from basic cleaning supplies to maybe even reconfiguring their classrooms so that there aren't too many kids in one space. That seems to be what you're talking about.

Chris Tappan:
Exactly. And we want to do everything that we can do. And again, our system is complex. So not all the funding comes from the Department of Health and Human Services. Our Department of Education in New Hampshire actually contributes significant funding primarily to school based programs that are before and after school. So through their 21st century funding that they have for learning community centers, there is a potential for about 60 of those programs to be open and available as well. So we're partnering with them. We're also, again, partnering with business and partnering with philanthropy. The Hampshire Charitable Foundation and the Endowment for Health have both been very significant partners, helping to not only operate our collaborative, which have brought resources from all of these areas right to the front door of health care centers, literally delivering to them, you know, everything that they need for the supplies that are really critical right now, but also to provide grants direct to our non-profit health care centers.

Laura Knoy:
Sure. Well, I have one last question for you, Chris, and you piqued my interest when you said one of the types of child care centers is 21st century. That's 21 C, right, that operates through public schools for sort of after school care and so forth?

Chris Tappan:
Yeah.

Laura Knoy:
So how does that work? Because I'm familiar with 21 C, it does a lot of great work here in Concord. Schools are closed, 21 C I thought was associated with schools. So how is that going to work?

Chris Tappan:
So we're working in conjunction with the Department of Education and really where we've been up until just a week or so ago when the new emergency order came out, is that we've been looking to negotiate demands. Right. Where is the demand for childcare? And then where's the need? So now as we look towards particularly over the summer and with some schools choosing to close sooner in mid-May, we actually are working really closely with the Department of Education and they're working closely with the array of schools that use the 21st century to actually consider opportunities potentially to establish childcare or re-establish childcare at those school locations, which we think is a great benefit to some students and parents.

Laura Knoy:
Sure. Well, and I know everybody is wondering about the summer, what's going to be open, what isn't, what kids are going to do once school is out soon. Chris, we could talked a lot more. I have three great guests who all work directly in childcare, so I'll let you go for now. But let's talk again. Thank you very much for being with us.

Chris Tappan:
All right. Thank you.

Laura Knoy:
That's Chris Tappan, associate commissioner of New Hampshire's Department of Health and Human Services, and we are talking about child care this hour on The Exchange. Let's hear your stories, your questions, your concerns that you have about this. As more Granite Staters possibly go back to work, they may need more childcare. We're finding out what the landscape might look like for them. And with me for the rest of the hour are Marianne Barter. She oversees six centers as executive director of Merrimack Valley Daycare Services in Concord and of Blueberry Express in Pittsfield. Marianne also serves on the New Hampshire Childcare Advisory Council. Also with us, Amy Brooks, executive director of the Early Care and Education Association, representing the Upper Valley. And Nicole Lamarche, director and co-owner of the Learning Tree in Londonderry. And a big welcome to all of you. And Marianne, I want to start with you. Several of your centers have been open all along, considered emergency child care, serving families of frontline workers, as Chris Tappan and I were just talking about. What's that been like for you, Marianne? And for your staff to keep seeing children and families during that very uncertain time?

Marianne Barter:
Well, first, thank you for having me on the show. It's been interesting, the first month was fairly awful. We were sort of winging it for the first month or so when you're trying to figure out what's going on and every day would bring a new sort of set of challenges. And I don't think there is a child care provider in New Hampshire that was getting any sleep at all in March. And then after that, it just sort of got normal. We certainly are serving far less children than we have in the past. That does have a huge economic impact on our program. And to be perfectly honest, it never occurred to me to close. We knew that we were serving essential personnel. We knew that they were going to need childcare for their children. And from our perspective, it was just a matter of figuring out the best way to make that happen. Luckily, the bulk of my staff decided to stay on and they didn't feel like they needed to sit this out, although some did. And that was fine. And somehow it just sort of worked out. And now we're having kind of the reverse problem, which is that people are starting to come back to work. And how is that going to work and how are we going to meet that new set of challenges?

Laura Knoy:
Sure. And what are some of those challenges, Marianne? You mentioned that no child care leader slept at night in March. What's keeping you up at night now?

Marianne Barter:
Money. I am absolutely hemorrhaging money.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, really?

Marianne Barter:
Yeah. Blueberry Express is a relatively small center in Pittsfield, it has average daily about 30 children. And our losses are around two thousand dollars a week.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. Because people are just pulling their kids.

Marianne Barter:
Pulling their kids and the class size. You know, we're restricted by COVID guidelines to have group sizes that are less than 10, and that includes the teacher. So if you have a classroom that usually has 12 children and now with one teacher now can only have nine children with one teacher, that's three children you're not serving. And then at two hundred dollars a week, that adds up very quickly. And if you're a larger program like Merrimack Valley in Concord and you have multiple classrooms where that's happening, you can imagine the economic impact on your program is just enormous. So that's definitely keeping me up. And then the second thing is really safety. And we've been in this great protective bubble where kids have gone to daycare and they've gone home and to daycare and home, back and forth. And now it's going to be daycare and home and the hairdresser's and possibly a restaurant and possibly shopping. And, you know, you worry a little bit more about what's coming into your center.

Laura Knoy:
That's interesting. Well, Nicole, how about you? You closed your center March 16th when the pandemic really hit. And with lots of young families in Londonderry, I'm sure that was very hard. Nicole, you've scheduled now a June 1st reopening date. What factors are you weighing, Nicole, as you make those plans?

Nicole Lamarche:
So we've been communicating very regularly with our families, seeing who's, you know, interested in returning, who needs childcare when they're comfortable with returning. So we communicate with them weekly. And we've started to hear that people really do need to get back to a normal routine. They do need care. So we feel like it's time that we get the procedures and protocols into place and start, you know, returning to a new normal for us and also financially for us as a center. It is something that, you know, it is time that we need to get back to work here.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah, you need to bring some revenue in. So what sorts of procedures and protocols are you looking at, Nicole?

Nicole Lamarche:
So we're looking at unfortunately, we're not going to be welcoming any visitors, tours, or even our parents. So they'll be all dropping at our main door. We'll also be temping all the children and all our staff upon arrival every morning.

Laura Knoy:
Taking their temperatures. Yeah.

Nicole Lamarche:
Yes. Everyone needs to be at a certain temperature or under in order to enter the building. Obviously, you know, debating about masks for the staff and for the children, the cleaning protocols that we're gonna have in place, how we're going to mitigate risk to the children while they're in our care so we don't combine classrooms, which is a huge issue with scheduling with our staff. So there's a lot of things that are in play right now that we're trying to figure out before that June 1st date.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. That's a lot of extra steps. I feel for you, Nicole, taking temperatures and figuring out masks and, you know, a much stricter drop off, which is kind of sad. I remember when my kids were in child care, you know, I'd drop them off and sometimes they said, hey, can you look at this painting I made yesterday, you know?

Nicole Lamarche:
So that's what we pride ourselves on. We pride ourselves on the parent piece and the family piece and that part of us in the community, you know, that's something that we're all really missing at this time.

Laura Knoy:
So what about demand, Nicole, are you thinking that you'll be pretty much back with the same families or half capacity, or you're not sure?

Nicole Lamarche:
Well, we're not going to be at full capacity, so we again, we've been serving our parents and they've been really forthcoming with information and we've actually lost a substantial amount of children that are typically enrolled with us. People aren't comfortable coming back yet or they have older children that they need to be home schooling. So they're going to be staying home. So that's going to, you know, obviously have a fairly large financial impact on us. But we do have those families who do need care and who would like to get their child back into a normal routine and who are essential workers. So we need to make sure that we're there for them.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. So, Amy, to you, again in the Upper Valley. What are providers in your area weighing as they make these decisions, whether to reopen? And if so, how?

Amy Brooks:
Good morning, Laura. This this has been very difficult for the centers that have remained open, as well as for the centers that have decided to close, again, the financial impact. We're working on a financial consulting support team that we've offered our first cohort of 15 centers to really dig in and help them assess the financial impact, to make sure that they're carrying out their PPP responsibilities and be able to come out of that without owing money. But I think the biggest thing right now that really holds them back is the 10 people per room restriction. So that is a four walls and a door. So if you have an open concept center that may be able to have two small groups in there, you're restricted to just 10 people. We're looking to see if that's going to be changing for June one. And that will really change the dynamics and make centers look at the families that they can serve. One of the biggest issues I talked to, we began reopen forums in the Upper Valley just for the upper valley centers focused, and their concern is not being able to take all their families back. And you know, which families would not be able to get their children back into care when they need to get back to work. So the 10 person per room restriction seems to be very much highlighted.

Laura Knoy:
And that includes Amy, staff and children. That's not 10 children per room. That's what, eight kids and two staff?

Amy Brooks:
Depending on the age and the ratio. It varies, but it's 10 people, no more than 10 people in four walls and a door.

Laura Knoy:
And are some of the childcare centers that you help out, Amy, getting any of the subsidies that we heard about earlier from Chris Tappan?

Amy Brooks:
Yes, we've been working with the open centers to make sure that they have access to everything through the stabilization opportunities that the states are giving and the supplies that the state has been shoring up the New Hampshire centers very well with. And we're doing some regional work as well with generous funding from the Couch Family Foundation, who's been amazing, being able to nimbly respond to this issue way back in March. But I think the big thing for parents that are listening that you're going to see some of the things that Marianne was talking about, Nicole is talking about, about the drop off may need to restrict to certain times of the day. So there isn't traffic in the parking lot with, you know, children waiting to have their temperatures taken. It's going to look a lot different. You know, not bringing personal items, the children may not be able to bring their toys and their teddy bears like they used to. And those types of things are really going to change the landscape from when they were there last.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. You won't be able to bring your special blanket for nap time? I think that would not have gone well when my kids were little. Is that what you're saying Amy?

Amy Brooks:
Well, some of those restrictions will depend on the center and what the new criteria look like as the state prepares to roll out reopening. But right now, we're trying to minimize surfaces that cannot be cleaned. The centers are turning some of their cabinets around so they don't have as many surfaces to clean. That's the other thing is that most of the centers I've talked to are closing early. So that they can do a deep cleaning each night of all surfaces and all of the materials. So you may see your center not being open until the regular time so they can get those deep cleanings in.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. Just like what the grocery stores are doing, closing earlier so that they can do those deep cleanings. We've got lots of questions already lined up from our listeners, all of you. So we'll go to those after a short break when we talk about child care. Coming up in just a moment, we'll talk about social distancing and how that might work when you're working with very young children. And we'll talk more about what you all are hearing from parents. This is The Exchange on NHPR.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange. I'm Laura Knoy. Today, childcare. As some non-essential businesses begin reopening this month, workers with young children may need childcare. We're asking, will they be able to find it? And what will it look like? Our guests are Marianne Barter. She oversees six centers as executive director of Merrimack Valley Daycare Services in Concord and of Blueberry Express in Pittsfield. Also, Amy Brooks, executive director of the Early Care and Education Association, representing the Upper Valley, and Nicole Lamarche, director and co-owner of the Learning Tree in Londonderry. And all of you, right to our listeners and Jackie is calling in. Welcome, Jackie. You're on the air.

Caller:
Hello there. Can you hear me, Laura?

Laura Knoy:
Sure can. Go ahead, Jackie. Welcome.

Caller:
Thank you so thank you for this program. And I just wanted to have the speakers address the fact that it was mentioned that about 400 programs open right now for the emergency child care programs. But back in February, there were over seven hundred and eighty eight programs open, serving with a license capacity of over 46000. I am greatly concerned about how many programs are still not open and really making sure that the ones that are open can stay open. I heard Marianne talking about bleeding money. That's something I certainly have heard. I work with Early Learning New Hampshire and the state. Certainly heard that we have diminished capacity. And so they still have the fixed costs like mortgage, rent, property taxes. So really encouraging those stabilization grants as small businesses. So I'd like to hear their thoughts about the need for grants for whether they're non-profit or privately owned. Thank you.

Marianne Barter:
Yeah. Thank you, Jackie, for calling in. Marianne, you serve on the New Hampshire Childcare Advisory Council. And you talked earlier about the severe financial pressures that many centers are under. So go ahead, please, Marianne.

Marianne Barter:
Sure. I mean, first of all, we're in the business of taking care of families. And I think none of us have gotten into this field for the money. But I will say that we are small businesses. I'm a non-profit, so there are some community supports for me, but most of childcare facilities do not have financial support from the community to help run. And so ultimately what happens is the same things that happens with restaurants and the same thing that happens with your local bookstore, which is, you know, can I afford to open tomorrow? Can I afford to pay my staff? And my biggest concern, I think, with all of this is, you know, there's this short term sort of nightmare scenario that we're going through that hopefully we'll get through relatively quickly. But a year from now, what does child care look like? I mean, if there's people clamoring to go back to work, I know before COVID, my waitlist was a mile long. Everyone I spoke to had a waitlist that was a mile long. And what happens if at the end of this there's much less supply than there used to be and the demand remains consistent or gets higher? What does that do? Just law of supply and demand, does that drive up prices to the point where only the very wealthy can afford child care? I mean, the impact on our field could be felt for years to come and that's really what I worry about.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. So there was a shortage of child care even before this all started. Yeah. Right. So and Amy, to that point, you know, Marianne and Jackie are absolutely right. New Hampshire's child care sector was struggling even before this pandemic hit with staffing issues and long waiting lists, as Marianne just said. How do you think, Amy, that reality has been affected by this pandemic and all the related closures?

Amy Brooks:
I think that, you know, the biggest concern for financial stability for the centers in the Upper Valley is definitely understanding what their gap is and understanding how COVID impacts their budget. All of the centers I've spoken to recently did not know how long they could go on. And we're just really don't want to lose any more slots. We were short in the Upper Valley as well. And we want to make sure that all centers come back as strong as they possibly can. I think one of the things that really stood out to me is back on April 2nd in one of our updates for New Hampshire Early Childhood Advisory Council was that 213 at that point, 213 centers had applied to be the emergency childcare programs. One hundred eighty five of those were for profits. And, you know, you consider for profit the dynamics of funding for a for profit. And you wonder how they're going to fare through this. You know, what on the other end, will they be able to access beyond the CARES Act to make sure that they can come back stronger? But, you know, within these very strict guidelines, you have additional staffing requirements due to the lower ratios due to having someone taking temperatures, due to the extra cleaning procedures. So I think that it's a very scary situation. And I'm hoping that we, through our financial consulting cohort of 15 centers, we can get a sense of what that gap is and be able to target funding to these centers so that they can come back and we don't lose any slots.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. So, Amy, are you saying that even though you might have fewer kids initially who need childcare for a variety of reasons, you might need plenty of staff because there are all these new requirements?

Amy Brooks:
Yes, that is the reality right now. And, you know, just putting it out there to parents to be patient because things are going to look a lot different. You know, staff are doing the best that they can. In New Hampshire, we have seven additional pages of COVID guidelines for cleaning.

Laura Knoy:
So just for cleaning, never mind pick up and drop off and temperatures.

Amy Brooks:
Right.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Jackie, thank you for the call. Let's take another one. Alexandra is calling in from Concord. Alexandra, you're on the air. Go ahead.

Caller:
I'm a parent with the CFDC, that's the Child and Family Development Center in NHTI and I'm calling, as you may know, NHTI is not planning to reopen the CFDC after the pandemic. And given the high demand for child care once the state reopens and as one of your callers or your guests just mentioned, the existing lack of thought and availability for child care. Our concern is that despite there being interest from the state to support the center, which works with babies as young as six weeks old and also a lab school that treats other professionals in the field, so having a bigger impact throughout the state, even though there's interest from the state to potentially help with funds to reopen the CFDC, NHTI does not seem interested. So what can we do about the state of not only available childcare, but also high quality early education when state funded institutions that were created to help fill this gap originally are not even taking this call to action?

Laura Knoy:
Well, Alexandra, thank you for calling. And I want to let you know I've got a couple of emails and Facebook comments about NHTI, a beloved institution and one, as you said, that plays an important role in creating the workforce of the future. So we don't have somebody from that facility on the show with us now. But I will throw that to you, Marianne, since you work on the advisory council. The role that this center in particular played not only in providing child care, but also as a lab school.

Marianne Barter:
And actually, it's not necessarily specific to NHTI. Several lab schools have closed over the last few years, including Plymouth State University has just continued their early education program. And I know that several community colleges have also discontinued their lab schools. And about five years ago, Perkins funding, which is federal funding that would go and run early childhood programs in high schools to prepare the next generation workforce, those stopped being used for early education also. I would say that early childhood went into the COVID-19 crisis, for us it's just been, you know, an avalanche of bad heading in our direction. We've had a limited amount of people going into the field. Wages are low in the field. So the people who end up choosing this as their career path often have to subsidize their own incomes. And I'm very sad about NHTI closing their early childhood program. It is an incredible loss for Concord, but it's one that we've seen mirrored all over the state. And really we're at the point where if the state and the federal government do not start truly investing in early childhood education, we may not have it. Or what we have may look very, very different. So it's really important, I think, to shore up these programs as they exist. Jackie on the phone mentioned that there were some proposed grants from the CARES money, that would go a huge way toward shoring up programs to this crisis.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Nicole, where are you getting your staff from? Your trained staff? Have a lot of them come from lab centers like the one at NHTI?

Nicole Lamarche:
Yes, when we first opened, we did receive a large amount of our staff through different lab centers. Unfortunately, we've seen less and less people apply and less and less qualified applicants. And obviously, schools doing away with these programs is really limiting the amount of people and the quality of people that we see applying to our program for positions. So it really does affect the quality of the care that we can offer.

Laura Knoy:
Well, thank you for that call again, Alexandra. I want to ask all of you about plans for social distancing when centers reopen. And Nicole, to you first, please. You're all working with the very youngest children. How do you do social distancing with these kids? It seems very difficult, Nicole.

Nicole Lamarche:
It's going to be quite a challenge because obviously they're children and they're in each other's personal spaces and they like to play closely to one another. They require a lot of, you know, one on one attention from our staff. So that is a concern for us. Our goal is to spend as much time outside this summer as we possibly can. Luckily, we have a plethora of playgrounds, we have eight playgrounds. We have green space that we can use. So we are hoping to be able to keep the children outside, whenever appropriate, obviously, to help separate them a little bit. But it is a big concern for us, because when you look at a classroom, typically the kids are grouped together, they're playing, and that's an important part of their development. So it is a big concern for us. How do we keep everybody separate and how do we keep our staff separate as well?

Laura Knoy:
Yeah, and speaking of the staff, I mean, little kids need hugs. They need reassurance. They're feeling sad. They're feeling scared. They fall down on the playground and hurt themselves. I mean, you can hug them still, right? If they fall down and skin their knees, so to speak.

Nicole Lamarche:
Absolutely. We will absolutely be hugging them. And we been training our staff and going through new procedures and protocols. And they have been very good about keeping themselves socially distant during this time, quarantining as necessary. So we hope that people continue to do that so that we can mitigate the risk to these children. And they do need love. That's part of the reason why they come to school.

Laura Knoy:
Marianne, I'd love your thoughts, too. I mean, we all know developmentally young children need to be held. So how do you socially distance with little kids?

Marianne Barter:
I mean, it's one of those things that's good in theory and impossible in practice.

Laura Knoy:
Well, exactly.

Marianne Barter:
Yeah. I think Nicole hit the nail on the head. We're still going to hug kids. We're still going to kiss kids. It is what it is. I think, for us, what we try to do is separate when we can. So keeping everyone a little bit farther away from each other at mealtimes, keeping everyone a little bit farther away from each other when we're doing projects, when they're napping, things like that, and then spending as much time as we can outdoors. But really, I believe what we need to do to stay safe is just keep it out of our building. That is our big thing. So like when parents drop off at the front door, we're going to take a temperature. We're going to ask you where you've been, what you're doing, how your child's been feeling. And if there's any question at all, we're just gonna have to send those little guys home until they can safely come back, because for us, we can do all the hand washing in the world and we do. But really, keeping it out of our building is the way to keep all of us as safe as possible.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and Marianne, there's discussion now about testing everyone who works in a nursing home, given, you know, that that has really been where this virus has hit the hardest. Are you guys talking about testing childcare workers?

Marianne Barter:
I don't know if there is a statewide initiative to do that. I know that my facility, my agency has set up a arrangement with convenient MD to have my staff tested. I mean, it's expensive. It is what it is. But so far we've only tested people who are returning to work after self quarantining, either in a state that has hot spots or a hot spot area or self quarantined by themselves where they wouldn't really, I mean, if I self quarantine with my husband and one of us is sick, the other one's gonna get it. So really, where there's a higher risk of them perhaps bringing it into the center and I have no idea if that's going to be wide into the greater public. I know that that is an expense that most child care facilities cannot afford. It costs about one hundred twenty five dollars a test. So it's expensive.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, my gosh. OK. Well, coming up, I've got lots of questions from listeners about safety, new policies, new procedures. We'll be back in a moment.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange. I'm Laura Knoy. This hour, child care. Some centers have remained open throughout the pandemic, serving essential workers. But now, as the economy begins to open up, more childcare may be needed. We're asking what factors leaders in this field are weighing and all that they have to put in place before they can reopen. Our guests are Marianne Barter. She oversees six centers as executive director of Merrimack Valley Daycare Services in Concord and of Blueberry Express in Pittsfield. Also with us, Amy Brooks, executive director of the Early Care and Education Association, based in the Upper Valley. And Nicole Lamarche, director and co-owner of the Learning Tree in Londonderry. And all of you, we did get some questions from listeners about safety. Jennifer sent us an email who says, I understand the need to have childcare centers open for essential workers, but I still question the safety of these centers, considering that they still cannot check every person every day. And even if they are able to test everyone, the test that's currently available is only 75 percent accurate. So false negatives can happen. With things the way they currently are, are essential workers with children more at risk than those who don't have children? Jennifer, thank you. And I think it raises a broader question about safety. And Amy, I'll turn to you on that.

Amy Brooks:
That's a difficult question. I know that in Vermont, they recently announced that they will be expanding their regular testing to child care centers as they begin to reopen centers June 1st voluntarily. I know in New Hampshire that the centers that I've been in contact with and this is in the region where we have Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, the V.A. and a few other medical centers, that there really hasn't been, you know, there hasn't been an outbreak. The personnel and staff that are mixed in attending the centers are both essential workers in the sense of medical workers, as well as people who are doing, you know, working in a grocery stores and service based industries. And we really haven't had anything to report as far as outbreaks within centers. There are incredible mitigation efforts in place and listening to the professionals at Dartmouth and in other realms that I meet with, it doesn't seem to be, with what we have in place, it doesn't seem to be something that is a great alarm. And I think that parents can feel safe with the efforts that they're doing, that it's going to be OK. They're going to be be vigilant. Hand washing, taking temperatures in the morning and parents can be aware that those types of things are in place and be patient. I think that it's going to be OK.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. Although the temperature, the emphasis on temperatures that I'm hearing, you know, from everybody these days is a little concerning, Amy, because we know now that many people are asymptomatic with this disease. So temperatures, you know, it's one level of check, but it doesn't seem to be the only level of check.

Amy Brooks:
No. And I think that catching them at the door before they enter the building and asking the questions that Nicole and Marianne we're discussing about other family members and people in the household, any fevers or any other flu like illness symptoms, any of the other COVID type symptoms, and then turning them back to their parents, if there's any doubt whatsoever. And like Marianne was saying, just trying to keep it out of the center is the best intervention we can do. But, you know, it is what it is. And I know Vermont said, you know, just do the best you can.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah, well, and again, Vermont not opening up its centers until June 1st and Massachusetts, June 30th. We got another question from NHPR's listener survey on this topic. Kate in Effingham says, If it's not safe for children to be in school, how can it be safe to go to daycare? Kate says this makes no sense. Nicole, how are you reassuring parents that your facility will be as safe as possible?

Nicole Lamarche:
Well, a big part is just communication with them, them communicating with us regarding what's happening with their families. I think that for us in child care, we have a more direct relationship with our parents than you naturally have in public school. We see them on a daily basis. We see them multiple times a day. So that communication piece is there. We can also work with smaller group sizes so we can mitigate more risks. And it's just really important that we keep those lines of communication open so that we are ensuring that if there's been exposure, that we are asking those children to stay home and that we can continue to follow these cleaning procedures. Obviously, everyone's nervous about it. We're nervous about going back. But we feel like, you know, we have the procedures, the protocols, and we do need to get, you know, back to some sort of normalcy. And this is one way to start with that.

Laura Knoy:
Well, we got an e-mail from Lindsay who says, I pulled my 16 month old from his daycare about two weeks before the state home orders. We continued to pay tuition until May when the center closed temporarily. They are reopening in early June. But Lindsay says, I'm really struggling with whether to send him back. He still puts toys in his mouth. He got sick a lot over the winter. She says, I really worry about him contracting COVID if he goes back, especially since kids might be asymptomatic carriers, and spreading it to his grandparents. Lindsay says we're fortunate that we can consider alternative yet more expensive options like a nanny. But the thought of pulling him from his teachers and friends makes me so sad. This is such a tough time and the decision is causing me a lot of anxiety. Lindsay. I feel for you. It is tough. And Marianne, you know, kids love to go to their day cares. They love their teachers. They love their friends. Those relationships are really important. And I'm guessing developmentally, it's important for kids to be with other children. So what do you think about Lindsay's e-mail, Marianne?

Marianne Barter:
You know, honestly, it is probably the hardest question. And I know that people in the field have different opinions about it also. So where I never once considered closing. I have many colleagues who never once considered staying open. And I think when you're dealing with something as personal as raising your child, ultimately you have to do what's right for you. You have to do what's right for your family. And you have to decide what you're comfortable with. I mean, my concern certainly is that not everyone can afford a nanny. You do not want to create a situation where the only people in child care are people who are disenfranchised or who are economically disenfranchised in some way. So we will have to find a way where everybody feels safe and that these are the these sort of touchstones for families that they're meant to be. So far, I mean, knock on wood so far, childcare has been pretty healthy. I've not heard a lot of cases happening in child care centers and I've not heard a lot of cases, in New Hampshire that is, in New Hampshire of child cares closing because of outbreaks. So so far, the cautious sort of steps that we have in place to keep our kids and to keep our staff safe, so far they're working. I mean, I'm just as nervous as anybody else. I love my kids and I love my staff. And I want them to all be as safe as possible. But it really comes down to, you know, your own comfort level with I guess the risk of it and some people truly do have to work. They have to work. And it won't just be catching COVID, it'll be catching COVID while being homeless while not having food on their family's table. I mean, there's a lot at stake here.

Chris Tappan:
Well, Lindsay, good luck in making that decision. That's tough. And all of you have mentioned staffing. And Nicole, I want to ask you about something Amy said earlier. You know, fewer families sending their kids to child care right now, but increased needs by staff to do extra cleaning, you know, have smaller groups of kids, take temperatures. So how are you figuring out this staffing question, Nicole, when you do reopen on June 1st?

Nicole Lamarche:
So we've been really lucky and I think this could be an anomaly. But all our staff is ready, willing and anxious to get back to work. So that is something really positive for us. So for us personally, we feel like we'll actually be overstaffed with the amount of children that will be coming back to us and the amount of staff that we have. So for us personally, we feel like we'll be in decent shape. But we know that's not the case for many of the other centers, especially the ones that are smaller than us. We're a fairly large center. So for us, you know, we know we will have the staff, but for these smaller centers, that's going to be a huge challenge for them to ensure they have somebody at the door for the children, somebody in the classroom. You know, we have been really lucky and we're very thankful for that.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. Yeah. Because I have heard from some other centers where staff are afraid to come back or they don't feel like they can come back because they have somebody at home who is immunocompromised and so forth. So people are just juggling all sorts of issues. So that's good Nicole. Marianne, how about you? What are you hearing from your staff and whether they can all come back, whether you actually need them all to come back, given, you know, questions around demand?

Marianne Barter:
Sure. I was fortunate to be able to get a PPP loan for both Merrimack Valley and for Blueberry Express. So we were in the fortunate position where we'd never even had to think about layoffs. We were happy to keep the staff we had and we hoped they would stay on. But we also made it very clear from the beginning that if you felt like you had to opt out, you could do so. You know, you could stay home if that was better for your family. We've been fortunate in that at Merrimack Valley out of our 35 staff, twenty six have stayed on with us. And a twenty seventh returned today. And really the answers have been all over the place. I had one woman come back today. I've had a couple of staff who said they're not coming back until fall. It really comes back to that personal sense of what is your comfort level. I am in sort of a weird position where in the middle of this COVID crisis, I'm actually gonna have to hire a couple of people. And that, you know, that's scary, too, because I'm inviting strangers into my home. So hopefully I'll find someone great who takes this all very seriously and meets the needs that we have as a center. But, you know, it's scary times.

Laura Knoy:
And in hiring someone, are you still following the same standards in terms of, you know, you must have this certificate and this education and, you know, these skills and these certifications?

Marianne Barter:
I am. Although I was not sure I would be able to. When I first placed an ad to hire, I was not quite sure who would come to me. But luckily, I have gotten some terrific applicants and we've started the interviewing process, which is its own kind of bizarre, sitting outside on the playground, six feet apart, wearing masks, kind of procedure. But so far we've been lucky. An extraordinary amount of LNAs who applied for a position here. And I thought that was sort of interesting about their field, too. An extraordinary amount.

Laura Knoy:
Interesting. Licensed nursing assistants. That's what that stands for Marianne, right?

Marianne Barter:
Yes.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. Amy, what's the picture in the upper valley in terms of staffing? I'm guessing there are a lot of a central workers in your area because you have such a big health care sector there.

Amy Brooks:
Yes, that's true. The centers that are open are struggling in various ways. Some are blessed to have their staff ready, willing and able to come back. We have some that are just short a few that they may be over 65 or be in some of those vulnerable criteria that they won't be returning for a while. And then there are others who have staff that just are not returning. So staffing was a critical issue prior to COVID and I don't expect that to change too much post COVID. I will say that going back to your caller, or your e-mail person, who is concerned about, you know, if the children weren't safe in public school. As a former owner of a program and a former public school teacher, the cleaning procedures are entirely different. I mean, daily light switches, doorknobs. I mean, we are constantly cleaning in early childhood programs. It's just the way young children operate. And in public school, we don't really have that. There are concerns about bussing and having children being on a bus prior to getting to school and not having any mitigation done prior to them getting off the bus. So it's an entirely different dynamic between public school and early childhood programming.

Laura Knoy:
So don't compare the two.

Amy Brooks:
It's difficult to. It really is difficult to. I know that you ask any of those center directors, and I mean, we had to put plastic on our walls because we washed the paint off of the walls. We wash the walls so much. This is pre-COVID. So they're an entirely different creature. So I would just say that, talk to your provider. Ask them about their mitigation efforts and really understand what's in place to try not to compare it to a public school scenario.

Laura Knoy:
Well, last questions for you all. And Amy, I'll start with you first. What do you predict the summer is going to look like for child care centers in your area?

Amy Brooks:
Through our open forum, we have a lot of centers that are shoring up and getting ready to reopen. The financial piece is going to be a major issue. And the staffing is going to be a major issue. We are looking at many school age children that are going to be needing care. And if the ratios do not increase, I'm not entirely sure how they can be accommodated at this time. So I guess we'll just have to wait and see as far as that goes. I do believe that we're going to have more children in need than we will have slots.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. Especially since you have to keep those groups relatively small.

Amy Brooks:
Exactly.

Laura Knoy:
That's a factor there. How about you, Marianne? Predictions for the summer? I know making predictions these days is a risky business, but what are your thoughts?

Marianne Barter:
I think I agree with Amy. I think the demand is going to far exceed the supply. And I know that Chris Tappan was speaking earlier about a thousand spaces being available. And that worries me a little bit because, you know, you can't say it's a thousand infant spaces. You know, a thousand spaces is only relevant if it's in your region and if it meets your needs. So my biggest concern is that I'm going to have a whole bunch of colleagues who decide to shutter their doors and we're just not going to be able to meet the needs.

Laura Knoy:
Well, it's been great to talk to all of you. And Nicole, I know you're opening up June 1st. So I will wish you good luck with that and with the summer. I really appreciate you being with us, Nicole. Thank you.

Nicole Lamarche:
Thank you for having me.

Laura Knoy:
Nicole Lamarche, director and co-owner of The Learning Tree in Londonderry. Amy Brooks, it was good to talk to you, too. Thank you.

Amy Brooks:
Thank you as well.

Laura Knoy:
Amy Brooks, executive director of the Early Care and Education Association in the Upper Valley. And Marianne Barter, good to have you, too. Thank you for your time and good luck as this unfolds.

Marianne Barter:
Thanks.

Laura Knoy:
Marianne Barter oversees six centers. She's executive director of Merrimack Valley Daycare Services in Concord and of Blueberry Express in Pittsfield. And you've been listening to The Exchange on New Hampshire Public Radio.