COVID-19 forcing innovation at child care centers

At the family child care center she runs out of her Dorchester home, Dottie Williams has started asking parents to send teddy bears along with their kids.

Ms. Dottie's NeighborSchool serves children between five months and four years old, an age range for which Williams said touch is an important way of bonding. To translate the ritual of a hug to the COVID-19 era, she now asks the kids to hug their own teddy bear while she hugs hers.

"Children are very, very creative, and when you're creative with them, they can adjust," Williams told lawmakers Tuesday.

As advocates and child care providers continue to call for an infusion of public funds to help the industry cope with added costs and lost revenue associated with providing care during a pandemic, stuffed animal-facilitated hugs are among several short-term adjustments speakers highlighted during the Education Committee's virtual oversight hearing.

Williams said shared activities like sand play and a water table for children in her care are now out of the question, so her school is doing more arts and crafts. The artistic expression, she said, can also help the kids work through stresses they've experienced over the past few months, like social isolation and disruption of familiar routines.

"When they're feeling emotional, they can draw out their emotions, so that's been extremely helpful as well, to be honest with you," she said.

In March, as the presence of COVID-19 was ramping up in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker ordered the closure of most child care facilities, except for those operating on an emergency basis for children of essential workers.

Child care programs were cleared to reopen in June, under new capacity limits and other safety restrictions.

In Somerville, the Open Center for Children reopened at half capacity on June 29, operating with slightly reduced hours and all of its staff still on board. Executive director Sarah Sian said retaining full staffing while collecting half as much tuition puts the center, with an annual budget of about $650,000 on track to lose between $20,000 and $25,000 a month.

Sian said a variety of factors contributed to the decision to not to lay off or furlough employees, including preserving the workforce for an eventual return to full capacity and having enough adults in each classroom to cover if someone is out sick.

"They can also just take a break if they need it," she said, raising the possibility that the work now might be more tiring and "harder than it was before."

Parents working in a variety of fields are also facing new challenges. Those who cannot work remotely -- including early educators themselves -- may have had to arrange new or different child care options, while those working from home are often juggling their jobs with care responsibilities.

Massachusetts Business Roundtable Executive Director JD Chesloff said his organization has been hearing "a level of surprise by employers about how productivity has remained high amongst employees," which the employers largely attribute to increased flexibility in how and when work is completed.

"The downside to that is that people never really stop working now," Chesloff said, giving the example of a parent who's online at 5 a.m. before their children wake up and then finishes work after the kids are in bed.

"It's not sustainable," Chesloff said. "The amount that people are working needs to be addressed, and it's addressed through K-12 education and child care."

Chesloff said the changing nature of work means employers may need to rethink the benefits they provide -- a subsidized transit pass won't appeal to a worker who's not commuting -- and could consider subsidizing child care.

He said full-time day care may not end up making the most sense for parents who keep working remotely, and suggested "we start thinking about flexibility" in care delivery models.

Jynai McDonald, the family child care coordinator for the union SEIU 509, raised the idea of staggered shifts and programs that are available at non-traditional hours like nights and weekends to accomodate the needs of low-income families who don't have remote work as an option.

"Now more than ever, we will need flexible and non-standard hours of care," she said.

McDonald said many family child care providers, who lack the purchasing power of large companies, are still having trouble acquiring personal protective equipment and recommended creating a "regional cost sharing program," potentially with state support.