Sharon Caddell has always wanted to go to work.
After 39 years of caring for other people’s children, starting at the adventurous age of 17, she still wants to go to work. And all of that experience in childcare helps when life brings roadblocks. But she, nor very few businesses, could be prepared for a state-ordered shutdown.
Coronavirus has rocked almost every industry in the country, and Alabama’s more than 1,800 child care centers are feeling the changes directly and on behalf of working parents all over the state. Closures can send caregivers, workers and small-business owners into emergency preparations.
It’s been almost a week since that order came down from Montgomery and since then Caddell, who runs seven different Little Peoples Child Care centers, has reopened one of her locations for first-responders. Children younger than 14 should not be left at home alone and 29% of health care workers in Alabama have children younger than 14, according to research by American Progress.
Within three days, daycare centers around the state had received two different orders on whether to close or not. On Thursday, March 18, owners were told they can only care for the children of a specific category of employees like first responders, hospital workers or law enforcement. Many centers around the state closed in a panic. And on Friday, a revised order said they could open “as long as 12 or more children are not in the same room or other enclosed space at the same time," in most Alabama cities.
Daycare centers in Jefferson County had a different order: As of Sunday, March 22, child care centers with 12 or more children must close unless they serve government employees, first responders and officers.
The statewide order released on Thursday was never supposed to close daycares, but instead, put regulations and precautions in place, said Barry Spear, communications director for the Department of Human Resources. The clarification was sent out soon after which let daycare owners and workers know they could reopen under the new precautions if they had closed because of misunderstanding.
This clarification was a blessing to some in the industry. “We are concerned for our parents,” said Tonyia Carter, head of Open Door Church Daycare in Sheffield, Alabama. “Our parents are in a tough situation because they are still having to go to work.”
Meg Bailin, Birmingham resident and mother of a 2-year-old, is lucky in that her work is normally done from home. The addition of her curious son to her work calendar has definitely been difficult, though.
Bailin’s sons’ center closed on Monday when the Vestavia Hills City Schools announced they would be closing. “I would have kept him out,” Bailin said. “To me, the risk of him going wasn’t worth me sending him.”
Carter’s daycare, outside of the Florence area, was closed Friday-Monday, and they reopened to those who need their services on Tuesday, March 24. Carter, like daycare workers and owners around the state, will be abiding by ADPH regulations as they welcome children back. “Our daycare was started to help single parents and low-income parents with affordable childcare,” she said. “When the state ordered us to close they put parents and businesses in a tough position.”
And bringing the children back to the centers carefully will not just help working parents, but also might save small businesses like Carter’s. Her clients pay out-of-pocket for the childcare provided in Sheffield, and the business needs that money to pay employees and keep the place running. Other centers receive government subsidies through The Child Care and Development Block Grant, a federally funded program for low and moderate-income parents of young children, as payment for some of their clients. The state has committed to continue paying childcare providers for those children until April 6, as of right now. And while that helps daycare centers like Caddell’s in Tuscaloosa, the center in Sheffield does not have that wall to lean on.
In response, the First Five Years Fund is drawing national attention to childcare centers and professionals like Carter. The non-profit is pushing legislators to include the child care industry in the Congressional economic stimulus package.
Camille Goldston Bennett, owner of Focus-Scope Child Enrichment Center in Florence, is one of the Alabama-based advocates for child care’s inclusion in the stimulus package. Bennett’s two childcare centers closed Monday of last week after seeing recommendations from ADPH. “Nobody is thinking about having to make this decision for weeks at a time,” Bennett said. “I can’t speak for a center that has 90% cash-payers. They won’t be able to survive without help.”
Bailin said her son’s daycare handled the transition conservatively and generously. The Hoover-based center announced that it would not be charging parents for the time the center was closed, and costs would be pro-rated. Later, Bailin said, the school sent out another email thanking parents who had offered to pay the full amount of tuition to help pay the workers during their time away from the clinic.
Centers are doing what they can to survive while helping their parents as much as they are able. “My hat comes off to the people that do what we do,” Caddell said. “The love of kids isn’t the only thing that gets you through this job. It’s a calling.” She sent her Tuscaloosa parents home with activity packages for Pre-K children. Over the next week, each child will be learning to recognize their name through tracing patterns, learning the color red and studying a number and letter of the week. And parents were asked to sign a form pledging that they would read to their children once a day, Caddell said.
Bailin, a working mother juggling online meetings, is doing what she can to keep her son busy and happy in a period of many unknowns. Creating a schedule for her son has helped him stay steady, and so far, the only thing he seems to miss is swimming lessons.
Bailin said she’s learned to give her and her son grace over the past two weeks. “I keep reminding myself, 'This isn’t regular parenting -- this is survival parenting."