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California Urges Day Care Centers To Stay Open During Pandemic

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Along with, well, just about everyone, child care providers are struggling through this pandemic. Some states have shuttered nearly all child care except those who care for the children of essential workers. But in California, day cares are encouraged to stay open. As Mariana Dale of member station KPCC reports, many are finding this difficult.

MARIANA DALE, BYLINE: ABC Little School in Los Angeles is doing what it can to stay open and safe for as long as possible. It's closed on Fridays for cleaning now. And director Stephanie Ortega has told staff to only travel between home and work.

STEPHANIE ORTEGA: I have parents that are upset that I'm open. And I have parents that are in need of me being open.

DALE: The state agency that licenses child care recommends providers screen staff and students for respiratory illnesses and create contingency plans for an outbreak of COVID-19. Ortega and other providers say they're not getting enough guidance.

ORTEGA: Listen; we don't have no backup. We're kind of on our own here. And if we continue to stay open and the situation does worsen, I'm putting not only my teachers at risk, I'm putting the children at risk.

DALE: California Governor Gavin Newsom has said he wants providers to stay open.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAVIN NEWSOM: The bottom line is we need our child care facilities, our day care centers to operate to absorb the magnitude of the impacts of these school closures.

DALE: The Child Development Center at Fairplex in Pomona is just up the street from a hospital. Executive Director Holly Reynold says they've changed their policies to prioritize care for children of essential workers. Classrooms are limited to 10 people at a time. And there's an extra seat in between each kid at lunch.

HOLLY REYNOLD: We're providing an essential service so that these families can go out and save lives.

DALE: But the state of California reports that more than a third of Los Angeles County preschools and day care centers have closed. That includes Young Horizons Child Development Centers in Long Beach.

SARAH SORIANO: The fear of spreading the virus was huge.

DALE: Sarah Soriano is the executive director. She says many recommendations, like keeping everyone six feet apart, were impossible to implement in a center with dozens of children from infancy to preschool.

SORIANO: Children naturally want to play together. They want to build things together. They want to color and paint. If we have a little ones, you have to hold them. You have to feed them. So how do you practice social distancing? You don't.

DALE: On top of that, neither her regular suppliers nor nearby stores had basics like bread and cleaning supplies. Across town in North Hollywood, Kim Martin became extra vigilant about the health of kids in her care. She's nervous because at 66, Martin is part of the population that's at a higher risk for getting seriously ill from the coronavirus.

KIM MARTIN: Hi, baby. How are you? How are you feeling? You're not sick, right?

DALE: A few late-comers were trickling into her home day care when I first reached her by Facebook Messenger.

MARTIN: It's crazy, you know? I mean, it's just day by day. We're business as usual until you get a text from me that says we're not.

DALE: Martin didn't plan to close. But after California ordered all nonessential workers to stay home, there were few kids left to watch. Now she's deferring her car payment and negotiating her rent. Home providers are self-employed and don't typically qualify for unemployment. Martin does plan to apply for expanded benefits under the federal relief plan.

MARTIN: We've always lived paycheck-to-paycheck. And sometimes, we've had no money. So we know how to eat cheese and crackers for dinner.

DALE: Martin is confident her child care business will survive. But it's not clear how many of those forced to close will ever reopen.

For NPR News, I'm Mariana Dale in Pasadena.

(SOUNDBITE OF MY DAD VS. YOURS' "NO FARM NO FOOD NO FUTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.