BELMONT, Calif. (KGO) -- If parents hadn't realized just how critical daycare was to their lives before the pandemic, the shutdown of child care centers at the start of the Bay Area stay-at-home order made it very clear.
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"The two of us were working at home thinking we were not doing a good job at being parents or doing a good job at work," said Claire Salloum, who has finally been able to drop off her daughter, Ada, at Footsteps Child Care in Belmont ever since the daycare center reopened on June 1.
But while the center has brought normalcy to parents, it has created a lot more stress for daycare operators who need to follow a long checklist of safety protocols.
First, parents are no longer allowed inside the center. They are greeted at the gate by a staff member, who puts sanitizer on the hands of both the parent and the child. Then the child's temperature is taken.
"The parent goes and writes the temperature that I read to them. They are signing off that their child hasn't been exposed and that they have no symptoms of COVID-19 or other diseases," said Jennifer Foletta, site director for Footsteps at Nesbit.
That is just the start of safety measures both the children and staff follow. There is constant hand washing as the kids move from playtime to eating snacks to nap time. Toys kids touch are put in a basket so they can be cleaned.
The center tries hard to minimize contact between kids, like having them sleep head-to-toe and not letting them share play-dough. But keeping them apart is not always easy.
"It's very difficult to social distance young children. It's almost impossible. We take time to do it when it makes sense - when they are eating, napping, storytime," said Karen Haas-Foletta, executive director of Footsteps Child Care, which runs daycare, preschool and after school programs in San Mateo County.
Reopening was not easy. Haas-Foletta said changing regulations from the health department has created confusion.
Footsteps divided its playground so each cohort has their own yard area and don't interact with other groups.
Before the pandemic, Footsteps operated nine locations and serviced 700 kids. It now only has five locations open and can only care for 200 children because of limits on the number of kids allowed in a group.
Staff has also been cut from 85 to just 45 employees.
"Our business model is very difficult. We are basically serving half as many kids with twice as many staff members," said Haas-Foletta.
Their situation is not unique. A study by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found that 40% of child care centers could close permanently without public assistance.
In San Mateo County, there were about 900 providers before COVID-19, now there are just 240 operating. Many of the ones that are closed may never reopen.
"Child care is an infrastructure issue. We used to say it was absolutely vital for working families. We now see it is absolutely fundamental to a working society," said David Fleishman, executive director of Child Care Coordinating Council (4Cs) of San Mateo County.
Results of a survey by the U.S. Census indicate that more than one million Californians did not work during the pandemic because they had to care for a child.
When the stay-at-home order started in March, daycare was only available for the children of essential workers. Child care was opened up to the general public in June, but operating a center remains difficult.
"For kids going back to school, planning is next to impossible because every district is deciding whether it is open some days and some days not," said Fleishman. "Without knowing what the schedules are going to be, and that dictates what the families are going to need, it is impossible to set up a program."
The Boys & Girls Club of Silicon Valley is in that dilemma right now. It operates 14-day care and after school programs in Santa Clara County.
When the pandemic started, it could only offer child care for essential workers, but when summer camps were able to open, it opened for all children but with fewer capacity.
"The kids we serve are at risk... 98% of kids attend schools that are under-resourced and have high rates of unemployment, poverty and crime," said Mark Washbush, chief operating officer of the Boys & Girls Club of Silicon Valley.
He noticed a difference when the center was able to reopen to the entire community.
"Our parents were reporting higher levels of irritability, anxiety, depression, stress among their kids. Being able to reopen, it's done wonders in terms of their social-emotional wellness," said Washbush.
Kids also stay in groups of 12 while at the center. They alternate between art programs, science, math and fitness activities. Supplies, balls, and computers used are wiped down after each group of kids moves from one activity to another.
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"We've put some thought into mapping how kids are transitioning from one area to another. They walk around the outside so two groups are not touching each other in the doorways," said Adam Hernandez, unit director of the Smythe Clubhouse in East San Jose.
When school resumes, the Boys & Girls Club will again revert to caring only for the children of essential workers until schools are allowed to proceed with a hybrid model of virtual and in-person instruction. The center will offer after school online programs for the community in the meantime.
"What is the balance of providing in-person care? Do we offer extra in-person services for families that don't fall into the essential worker category? That is something we have to wrestle with," said Washbush.
Even when it can open the after school program to the surrounding community, Washbush said it will have to reduce enrollment by about 40% because of limits of children in each group.
Reduced capacity is causing hardship for child care operators. A study by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley found that 77% of child care programs that are open have lost income and many have missed rent payments or are relying on credit cards to pay bills.
Footsteps Child Care is managing to survive for now.
"We will be OK for a while. We can probably make it for four to six months with losing money every month, but we can't make it forever. Nobody can make it forever losing money," said Haas-Foletta.
Congress is looking at several solutions to help the child care industry. Last week, the House of Representatives approved a $60 billion bailout. The Child Care for Economic Recovery Act increases federal investment in child care to $10 billion a year through 2024. The Child Care is Essential Act creates a $50 billion Child Care Stabilization Fund to help child care providers.
The bills are now in the Senate.
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