The shortage could occur even after the pandemic's end

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There has been a drastic drop in student enrollment at child care centers since the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading, a situation affecting revenue for many centers and leaving early childhood educators out of work or having to work remotely.

Of 40 centers in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, 11 are operating, according to a United Way of Greater Charlottesville survey.

While there’s not yet a shortage of child care centers, experts say that could change rapidly as health care systems are overburdened and more workers are needed. The local United Way and ReadyKids are monitoring the situation with the department of emergency planning in the event a shortage arises.

“The biggest impact is that a great number of them have closed,” said Barbara Hutchinson, vice president of community impact for the Greater Charlottesville United Way.

Child care centers that are open have lowered their ratio of children to teachers so they can create more distance in the classrooms, Hutchinson explained, as mandated by the state. By decreasing the number of children they can serve, they’re losing revenue, she said ― plus, they’re spending money on cleaning supplies to keep surfaces sanitized.

“It has been devastating,” she said. “Many teachers have gotten laid off.”

Sarah Ferrell Souter works 50-plus hours in health care leadership and has one child attending Bright Eyes Community Childcare Center, saying she’s thankful the center is open.

“My husband and I work in health care and public safety, so not only are we essential during this time, but we also have some extended hours and responsibilities as well,” Souter said. “… We would be in a bind if [Bright Eyes] closed like so many others have.”

Souter said she doesn’t have any plans if Bright Eyes closes.

“We would work through it the best we can, but with the long hours that we work, it would not be a quick or easy change and would definitely have some short term impacts on our ability to work our necessary hours,” Souter said.

Souter said she and her husband both have jobs that need them, if not more than usual during this time.

“We’re so thankful that Bright Eyes is still open thus far, and that all of the staff at the center are still taking excellent precautions to make sure that our kids, and therefore the rest of us, are kept healthy and safe,” she said.

Reagan Ralston, director and owner of Bright Eyes, said her child care still operates and has not laid off any of her employees because she wants to support the ones she’s aware of who are from single-income households and serve essential employees, like grocery store workers, doctors or firefighters.

“We’re a small business,” Ralston said. “One of the most important things that I can do is support my staff and make sure that my teachers know that no matter what, they’re going to get paid. That’s a decision that I made very early on, hearing about the virus and things were going to shut down.”

Some parents have chosen to pay the fees to Bright Eyes, although their children no longer attend the center. Her center has taken the necessary steps to keep children safe, but Ralston said she also wants parents to be vigilant about who they’ve been exposed.

“What we want to do is to keep the children who are coming here as safe as possible, and that to me is our number one priority,” she said.

This is a critical time for child care centers.  The early childhood education sector has existing disparities, including funding, space and quality. The public sector does not have enough space to serve all pupils, therefore parents are referred to the private sector.

Parents who are able to pay for high-quality preschools typically are affluent; about 55% of high-income families can pay for preschools for 3- or 4-year-olds and only 36% of low-income families can, experts say.

Gail Esterman, of ReadyKids, said some centers operate on small margins, and they may not be able to survive financially. A great number of nonprofit centers and even centers with a for-profit business model normally don’t have savings, she said.

Parents getting laid off from work coupled with others whose work schedules have shifted due to remote work have opted to keep their children at home, creating a decrease in student enrollment at the centers, Esterman said.

“When they cannot get tuition fees, they’re likely not going to be able to sustain their business, which is going to create a shortage of child care, not only right now during the time when essential personnel may be in need of child care, but when all of this goes back to normal, we still going to have working parents that need child care and it may not be there,” Esterman said.

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Based on preliminary division records, county schools hired three new Asian teachers, seven Black teachers, seven Latino teachers and three teachers who identify as two or more races.

Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Sarah Hanks, executive director of Monticello Area Community Agency, said her organization’s HeadStart brick-and-mortar programs are closed, but preschool schools have been assisting parents through an app named Bloomz, an education platform allowing teachers to post pictures and video activities.

Maintaining her staff hasn’t been an issue, she stressed. However, she’s been concerned about how the pandemic will affect low-income or vulnerable families.

With a workforce working remotely, Hanks said it’s challenging to provide some of the basic services to families in need of baby formula, diapers and food, among other needs.

“Most vulnerable families in our region are enrolled in our program, and they are the families with the most limited resources,” said Hanks, whose organization serves 213 families via HeadStart.

In response to the closure of all K-12 schools for the remainder of the academic year, the school systems and other organizations have worked to make sure that no children go hungry. But Hanks said some of these families may not be able to drive to the distribution sites or purchase food at the grocery store using food stamps.

MACAA serves Charlottesville and Albemarle, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson counties and has delivered food to families. It practices the 6-foot social distancing guidelines set by health professionals to drop off the food at the doorsteps or front porch of the families. The organization’s food pantry in Fluvanna usually serves 50 to 60 families a month, but that number has been surpassed in 10 business days.

Hanks is urging the community to make cash donations to macca.org. Baby formula, diapers, baby food are also among items that can be donated.

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It is troubling that the districts have no metric system to close the schools, said Dr. Ebony Jade Hilton, an associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care at the University of Virginia.

Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Emily Morris, a preschool teacher at Agnor-Hurt Elementary School in Albemarle County,  has been working remotely via MACAA’s HeadStart program, providing instructional resources to parents through Bloomz since the pandemic outbreak.

“They’re based on off of our HeadStart standards, like math, literacy and emotional development, physical. We also call them at least once a week, just to touch base and do any individualized help that we can do,” Morris said. “If the child is working on writing my name and saying here’s some ideas how to help them write their name.”

Morris agreed that the new learning method has been effected and lauded how the families have been interacting with teachers. But it can be difficult for teachers knowing what they want to teach, but they cannot teach it hands-on, meaning they have to explain it to someone else.

“We have to continue to challenge the parents to challenge the children to challenge themselves,” Morris said. “… Keeping up with the parents and keeping up with any individualized things that we did with the kids as we can is crucial.”