School closings here and across the state meant to ease the COVID-19 outbreak have left working parents scrambling to find care for young children.
And it's left day care centers with the difficult choice of closing – leaving more children without a place to go – or staying open but risking the further spread of the novel coronavirus.
“It’s a struggle. We’re watching everything we can. We’re following protocol from the state Office of Child and Family Services,” said Sara Smith, director of enrollment and marketing for EduKids.
The provider, which has 15 locations in Erie County serving 2,000 children, has remained open but has made radical changes to its operations to ensure the safety of its children and employees.
Other day care centers, however, have closed as a precaution, even though they understand this leaves many parents in a bind.
"It's causing inconvenience and disruption to families. We know that. But we also known safety and health is more important than anything else," said Rick Zakalik, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Buffalo, which has about 300 children in its child care program.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has not ordered the closing of day care centers, but the regulations are evolving.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz on Tuesday afternoon said the 50% restriction on a building's capacity has few exceptions beyond hospitals, public safety facilities, grocery stores and a handful of others. He did not mention day care centers as an exception to the rule, which appears to set limits on how many children they can serve.
A group representing about 20 independent day care centers in the area met Sunday to discuss the best way to proceed in the face of growing COVID-19 concerns, said Carm Catalano, co-owner of Colvin Brighton Child Care that has two locations in the Town of Tonawanda.
The operators had conflicted feelings, Catalano and co-owner Chris Iraci said, with some arguing the safety risks are too great to stay open and others believing they must continue to serve their families.
Colvin Brighton is staying open for now, but Catalano and Iraci didn't easily come to that decision.
"I don't want to have the first day care that comes down with a case," Catalano said. "I'd feel responsible."
The center typically has 84 children, from six weeks old to 5 years old, but it now has 53. Some who stayed away are the children of teachers who aren't in school themselves, and others have older siblings to watch them, Catalano said.
But one father works at Erie County Medical Center and said he didn't want his two foster children picking up anything from him and spreading it to the other children at Colvin Brighton, she said.
"This is terrible, really," Iraci said of the uncertainty. "All the employees are worried, too."
Many day care providers throughout the area are now caring for older children in the wake of the school closings related to COVID-19.
The suspension of state regulations relating to child care allow providers to take in school-age children, expand capacity and staffing ratios and waive certain training and inspection requirements.
The executive order issued by will remain in effect until April 11.
“Normally, school-age children are dropped off at 2 p.m. We just expanded the program for the day for children who are already enrolled. Children receive breakfast, lunch and a snack while their parents are at work,” said Smith of EduKids.
Providers are also limiting access to facilities. Many centers now require parents to transfer their children at the door or curbside.
“We’re asking our parents not to enter the classrooms. They can walk their child to the door. Everyone who steps foot in the building has their temperature taken. If it is above 101.4, they just can’t enter,” Smith said.
Sanitation measures are increasing in intensity and frequency.
“Touch points like push buttons and door knobs are sanitized every 30 minutes during drop-off and pickup, and every hour during the rest of the day,” said Smith. Staff also are serving children individually instead of family style.
Providers of independently owned centers and those who operate from home are facing different challenges. Danielle Kinsman operates Jumped Up Jellybeans from her home in the Town of Tonawanda.
“We’ve been taking temperatures all day. We’re cleaning, spraying, disinfecting; the process is longer, different," said Kinsman. “Parents may try to mask the symptoms of their children, because they don’t know what they’ll do if their child can’t come here. I ask them if they gave their children Tylenol in the morning.”
Kinsman is looking to move her child care business to a commercial site on Hertel Avenue. She is scheduled to close on the property by April.
“I’m concerned, but for now my work is my home; my kids are here," Kinsman said. "So if I can help police officers or firefighters whose services are essential, I will. We’ll just stay open until they tell us to close.”
Without child care, many parents would be forced to quit their jobs.
Lashandra Hill, 24, lives in North Tonawanda with her daughter, who is 1 and attends Jumped Up Jellybeans. Hill works at a collections center and is enrolled in Bryant & Stratton College's medical office assistant program.
“I have been thinking what I would do if my day care closed. Now that school is closed, I’m taking my classes online," Hill said. "If I keep her home, I’d miss work and I might lose my job.”
Other centers have made the decision to close, such as the East Aurora Community Nursery.
The nursery closed effective Tuesday through March 27, when it will re-examine that decision.
Until then, the center wrote on its website, "Stay home with your families, and stay safe!"
The JCC's child care program is closed until further notice, although it is talking to county health officials about the possibility of reopening for children of first responders and other essential medical personnel, Zakalik said.
But, for now, the center has no plans to take in the children it typically serves. "We've got a lot of intelligent and caring parents who don't want their children exposed to danger," Zakalik said.
The YMCA Buffalo Niagara serves about 3,000 children at 50 locations, including schools.
The agency sent an email to its members late Monday saying it would revive the child care program at its branches but with a focus on serving those in essential community roles.
“As the area's largest child care provider, it's difficult when facilities are closed,” said Geoffrey Falkner, vice president for strategy and marketing.
New York City on Monday will open 100 emergency child care centers for school-age children of first responders, health care workers, transit workers and other vital employees.