Palo Alto Community Child Care Director Melissa Momand plays with students at the Downtown Children's Center in Palo Alto on Nov. 19. Photo by Olivia Treynor.Posted December 4, 2020
Making child care work during a pandemic
New challenges, including financial, face programs serving the community's youngest
by Elena Kadvany
For Karna and Arne Nisewaner and their two children, Palo Alto Community Child Care has been a lifesaver.
Instead of her elementary-aged children feeling ignored and isolated at home and Nisewaner and her husband feeling endlessly torn between their jobs and managing their children's online learning, her son and daughter are around other children during the day while their parents can work uninterrupted.
Nisewaner said she's watched her children return to their former selves, making new friends at the nonprofit's program at Addison Elementary School and engaging more in online learning with the support of familiar staff whom they knew pre-pandemic.
"The most important thing is the mental (and) social well-being of my kids and the absolute improvement in disposition and mood that they experienced. They're interacting with other kids. They're running around outside. They're playing games," Nisewaner said. "That has had such a mood-stabilizing impact."
Palo Alto Community Child Care (PACCC) reopened in June after three months of pandemic-forced closure. The shutdown has in many ways upended how the nonprofit functions, both on the front end with children and on the back end operationally. The nonprofit is blowing through its reserves, had to close a site and is raising prices to keep its programs open for families who need in-person care, with no clear sense of when public health restrictions will allow for greater capacity and thus revenue.
"I think we need to be really, really concerned about the future of child care," Executive Director Lisa Rock said last month. "Child care is critical to the infrastructure of our cities because this is how parents go to work, and working with your kids underfoot is not a long-term solution."
Palo Alto Community Child Care received a $10,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly's Holiday Fund this year, which the nonprofit used to buy medical-grade air purifiers for its classrooms and administrative offices. PACCC also reallocated a Holiday Fund grant from last year that was originally supposed to fund a preschool garden project to purchase air purifiers instead. The purifiers accomplish a dual purpose: decreasing the risk of COVID-19 in reopened classrooms and cleaning the air when wildfires bring unhealthy levels of smoke to the Bay Area.
PACCC has spent more than $25,000 on medical grade air purifiers — without which Rock said the child care programs would have had to close during several days of poor air quality this fall.
"They were critical to our ability to operate safely this year," she said of the air purifiers.
PACCC is currently serving about 300 children — compared to the usual 900 across 19 sites — in stable cohorts of 12 with two staff members each. When the nonprofit first reopened this summer, Palo Alto Unified elementary schools were still closed, so PACCC staff became students' distance-learning guides, overseeing 12 children's different schedules, programs and internet needs.
While revenues decreased with fewer students enrolled, the nonprofit's costs went up to be able to staff smaller cohorts of children and to cover additional cleaning, personal protective equipment (PPE) and new health protocols, Rock said. PACCC had to raise prices as a result. Starting on Jan. 1, PACCC will charge families a new "COVID fee," $100 for school-age children and $300 for younger age groups. (Even pre-pandemic, the infant toddler programs were financially tight given the more costly, lower children-to-staff ratios the state requires for young children, Rock said.)
Children are now attending PACCC's programs for full days two to three days a week and half days two to three days a week based on when they're going to school in person. Students older than 2 years old must wear face coverings, as do staff, have their temperatures checked and wash their hands before entering the sites.
"When children return to school and child care, it will feel very different than it did when they left," PACCC's COVID-19 plan states. "There will be times when children forget the new 'rules' and there will be times when children feel distressed by social distancing, missing their parents or maybe they will just need a hug. In these moments we will respond with caring and kindness and make decisions in each moment that put the needs of the child front and center."
Parents must fill out daily health checks for their children, now a sign-in and -out requirement. Parents are no longer allowed to visit their children's classrooms — a major change from the nonprofit's longtime open-door policy, Rock said.
The nonprofit has lost about 20% of its staff, either because there wasn't enough work for them, they moved out of the area or they didn't feel comfortable returning to work in person, Rock said. To keep the cohorts stable, there's also no possibility for substitutes or vacations for staff.
"When we reopened, staff and kids and families were really excited, and I think our staff really recognized just how important the services are that they're providing. On the other hand, it's a hard environment for them to work in. You're very focused on cleaning protocols and daily intake protocols — taking every child's temperature and the litany of health and safety questions you go through before they can even walk through the door every day — and not being able to see a real light at the end of the tunnel," Rock said. "We've been trying to focus more on the emotional well-being of our staff, to help them continue to do this work because the families that need us really need us."
As PACCC continues to operate at a loss, the nonprofit's leadership is looking for other funding opportunities and ways to rebuild reserves to prepare for the next crisis, whatever it may be. Rock, meanwhile, is looking around at other local child care programs, some of which have not reopened and at least one of which closed permanently.
"Child care has always operated on thin margins. Even if you were set up to last for awhile, like we were, you're not going to last forever, and you might not even last a year," Rock said. "Whether you're a larger program like we are or smaller, you're in real jeopardy right now."