When back-to-school day was approaching, Victor Rodriguez decided his oldest child, who is registered with Whitson Elementary School in Topeka, was staying home.
"We're not sending her to school like two days here and then online," he said. "I decided they're not going to school the whole year until we see what's going on with this pandemic."
But Rodriguez faced a dilemma: how to continue running his restaurant to pay the bills and how to take care of his three children, all 5 years old or younger, at the same time. It’s something he has juggled with since the pandemic hit.
"Having three children, it becomes very expensive to have a caretaker or day care. One is expensive already, but three multiples it," Rodriguez said.
He came up with a solution. Last week, Rodriguez opened up California Kids Child Care to not only take care of his own children but to make some much-needed income taking care of others, as well. Starting and running the day care, however, has had its own challenges.
As schools begin to start the year with hybrid and remote models, state officials are realizing how serious situations like Rodriguez’s are becoming. Meanwhile, child care providers are scrambling to adjust – but say some relief money from the state would be appreciated.
An urgent problem
Melissa Rooker, executive director of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund, said the availability of child care options during this time is especially crucial.
"For people who cannot work from home, and who can't afford to take a leave from their job, this is a pretty untenable situation where they need to have safe options for supervision of their kids who have responsibilities to be online," she said.
According to her organization’s research, the majority of school districts in Kansas, which are smaller in size, are operating in-person. But virtually all 36 districts with more than 2,500 students are going hybrid or remote – that’s two-thirds of all Kansas students.
In addition, nearly 40% of Kansas students in kindergarten through sixth grade qualified for free lunch last school year, and that’s expected to rise due to COVID-19, Rooker said.
State elected officials have brought up the issue of child care more and more in recent weeks. During discussions over whether to include a $100 match per week from statewide CARES funding for unemployment benefits, child care was brought up as a better use of that money instead.
Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration has made some adjustments, announcing that child care subsidies for low-income parents would not decrease in September when the school year starts. A Hero Relief Program was created to help provide some child care money to essential workers.
And currently, the state task force in charge of COVID-19 relief funding has put child care as one of its priorities in allocating the remaining $290 million of CARES funding. While a good amount is intended to go toward working parents, providers are seeking some of that money, too, saying otherwise, there may not be enough options for proper child care at all.
Transitioning to full-time care
Rooker had suggested the task force lean more toward giving money to providers instead of individual families.
Families are already receiving child care subsidies through the Kansas Department for Children and Families, she told The Topeka Capital-Journal, and the multiple before- and after-school care programs that exist are simply not the all-day care programs needed now.
"The speed with which we need to set up these programs, it's just a capacity issue," she said. "We're looking to very rapidly stand up programs that don't exist in the form that we are proposing."
Kansas YMCAs have stepped up to try to transition to full-time care programs, but are in need of assistance. In a letter sent to the state task force, the Kansas Allliance of YMCAs requested it set aside $50 million for setting up all-day care programs, as well as for operational expenses.
In Topeka, the local YMCA has made that transition already. It offers an extended camp that parents can choose certain days to drop their children off, where they would be under supervision and can do remote learning. The program is open to school-age children up to sixth grade and offers scholarships for families in need.
"We're just trying to keep the children that we have safe and give them the ability to learn, but certainly not trying to replace or take over for the schools," said John Mugler, CEO of YMCA Topeka.
Fortunately, YMCA Topeka’s program has been funded by gym membership fees and generous donors, Mugler said, which has proven to be enough thus far.
But it’s been expensive transitioning to all-day, he said. Mugler and his staff have had to upgrade the WiFi to take into account the remote learning. They’ve had to implement multiple measures to ensure safety from COVID-19, such as redoing air conditioning filters, deep cleaning and getting face shields for staff.
With programs that once were only a couple hours now a full day, operating expenses have also increased, such as more meals being provided and school supplies being needed. And keeping young children entertained and learning, while ensuring social distancing, can be difficult at times.
Boys & Girls Clubs of Topeka has been establishing virtual learning and safety zone spaces for students, as well. The organization said additional funding would prove very helpful for them.
"Necessary funding would support these critical services being provided and allow for further expansion," said CEO Dawn McWilliams in an email.
Not all child care facilities have had good luck during this pandemic.
According to Rooker, 14% of facilities have had to temporarily close down for virus-related reasons. A center may not have had enough space to operate at social distancing capacity. At times, resources were not enough to adapt to the pandemic. In other cases, there simply were not enough clients, with the pandemic hurting many people’s wallets.
Rodriguez said he’s heard of situations like that, including one child care provider he knew who shut down after running her facility for 30 years, simply because there was not enough business.
"If we don't get any funding, a lot of the care facilities are going to close down, and what are the parents to do? So they can go to work, who’re they going to leave their children with?" he said.
He added that the facilities that do remain open can only take fewer children than normal due to social distancing practices, meaning less income. At the same time, they’re also more overwhelmed with requests to have their children taken care of and more families have to be turned down, he said.
Caitlyn Barnes, who runs Little Blessings Childcare in Salina, said she’s heard of facilities closing down, too.
"I do know a lot of other providers that did have issues. They lost kids, because people lost jobs and they weren't working or they were working from home or working limited hours and stuff like that," she said.
Both Barnes and Rodriguez have been lucky, they said of themselves. Barnes only lost one family as a client before they came back, and Rodriguez said he’s been able to pay costs with money from his restaurant business.
Ultimately, many child care providers said they are trying their to best to help out the community as much as possible.
"We're just thankful to be here and to be in service," said Mugler. "That's our whole mission."