While the adults worry about the upheaval caused by the global pandemic, the little ones at End of the Rainbow Childcare Centers are worried about the water fountains.

Nikki Reynolds, owner of both End of the Rainbow Childcare Centers in Columbia, said some children have made a daily routine of stopping at the fountains. Even if their parents told them they had water in the car, Reynolds said the kids wanted that water, “the best water in Columbia.”

For now, the water fountains run dry. They’ve been closed to reduce germ transmission — just one of the many changes that those centers and others across Columbia have made to help keep children and staff safe during the COVID-19 crisis while still providing families with the care they need.

Some day care centers have closed altogether until life goes back to whatever normal looks like.

According to Columbia’s stay-at-home order, day cares are essential businesses because they care for the children of essential workers. A parent just has to provide proof that they work in an essential field.

Aligning with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many centers have switched to curbside pickup and drop-off. Center staff members walk kids in between their parents’ vehicles and the day care to reduce the number of people in and out of the facility.

Other centers have started taking kids’ temperatures at the door and screening for signs of illness.

And, of course, a special emphasis is being placed on hand-washing and teaching children to leave space between themselves and others.

Day cares that remain open are trying to come up with creative ways to explain concepts like germs and social distancing, many day care directors said. While these are easy concepts for most adults and older children, they can be hard for day-care-aged children to grasp.

“When you say words like ‘social distancing,’ they just look at you like you’re crazy,” said Sharon Sweezey, owner of Jades Preschool and Daycare. “We are (instead) encouraging children to ‘give each other space’ and ‘stay out of each other’s bubble.’”

Gay Litteken, executive director of the Mary Lee Johnston Community Learning Center, said the center talks to kids about the importance of hand washing with the help of soap, water and a splash of pepper.

After explaining what germs are, a teacher puts black pepper in a bowl of water. Then a child can dip a finger in the water. When the pepper sticks, it shows how the germs can get on their hands.

Then the child covers a finger in soap and does it again. This time, the soap repels the “germs” quickly, showing kids how washing your hands can protect you.

Adjusting to the stay-at-home order’s other rules has also been challenging.

For example, it says child care must be carried out in “stable groups” of 10 or fewer people, including caregivers. This means children stay in the same small group all day, every day, led by the same caregiver. For many day cares, this means breaking up larger classes into smaller groups and having more people to care for fewer children.

For some, the new rules create space problems because those small groups are meant to be in separate rooms. Some parents have voluntarily kept their kids home to create space for people who need to use day care.

For Ashley Shoener of Columbia that meant taking on the simultaneous roles of employee, mother, teacher and dance instructor after she and her husband temporarily took their children out of day care after the stay-at-home order.

Even though Shoener is considered an essential worker, she and her husband decided to keep their kids home because they were fortunate enough to be able to do so. She and her husband set up a schedule to make sure the kids are taken care of while also allowing the two of them to get their work done. An early riser, Shoener starts at 6 a.m. and switches with her husband around noon.

It’s been hard to maintain a work-life balance while trying to be a parent 24/7, she said, but she and her husband have been looking at it as a chance to make positive memories with their kids.

“I think we’re just trying to make the best out of a really scary and difficult situation,” Shoener said. “My husband and I are taking the approach that, in light of what is happening, we have gotten this time with them.”

The change has allowed her and her husband to notice the small changes in their kids as they get older. Since being home full time, she has seen her 1-year-old son learn at least three new words and she’s observed her 4-year-old daughter’s curious mind in action.

Difficult times remain

Attendance at Jades Preschool and Daycare dropped more than 50%, with around 30 kids a day compared to the 70 it cared for before the pandemic, Sweezey said.

More than 30% of the children at the center have parents working in health care. Once a nurse herself, Sweezey said she understands the importance of staying open for those workers. The center has a new infant care room that now sits empty, and the center has had trouble finding supplies like toilet paper and milk at the usual places and prices.

“I look at these sweet, innocent children and know that we’re doing the right thing staying open. I look at the tired, worn-out parents that work in health care and know that we’re doing the right thing,” Sweezey said. “The parents don’t have to worry about the safety of their child while they are working crazy hours with sometimes horrible conditions.”

Sweezey also opened up 10 temporary spots for the children of essential workers whose day cares may have closed elsewhere. She said she knows how hard it can be to find a new day care on quick notice and used those openings to help some parents out.

Reynolds also noted a drop in attendance at the End of the Rainbow Centers. She said each center now cares for 40-45 children, compared to the 120 they once cared for pre-pandemic.

The End of the Rainbow Centers have increased sanitation, done away with family-style meals and suspended use of the sensory table, where children interact with different objects to stimulate different senses.

Parents at multiple Columbia day cares continue to pay for tuition, even with their kids at home.

The amount differs from place to place. Some parents are paying full tuition while others are paying half tuition to hold a spot. Several directors emphasized, however, that they are working with some families individually to figure out what works best for them.

Other centers aren’t requiring tuition from homebound families but are asking for donations so they can continue to pay their staff.

Among the reasons day care centers are citing for requiring parents to keep paying tuition are holding their child’s spot throughout the month of April and helping the centers pay their staff, which allows everyday operations to continue for the children of essential workers.

In some cases, the tuition also goes toward the activity packets or school schedules some day cares are sending home. The schedules can help keep kids in some semblance of a normal routine, several center directors said.

Closed, for now

Some day cares have closed completely for the remainder of the order, citing low attendance and safety reasons.

The Child Development Center of Columbia at First Baptist Church is among the day care centers that decided to close. Director Misty Phillips said it remained open as long as possible for the families who needed it but, eventually, a big drop in attendance prompted the decision to close.

Those spots will be held for families for when the center reopens. Parents are not required to pay tuition during the closure but have been asked to do so if they felt they could to allow the center to continue to pay its staff.

MU Health Care has opened its own temporary child care facility for some of its workers near MU Women’s and Children’s Hospital, according to a video uploaded by MU Health Care.

The facility is licensed to care for up to 32 children between the ages of 5 and 12. The children will be cared for in small groups in accordance with Columbia’s stay-at-home order. The service is free for MU Health staff, according to the video.

Several day care owners expressed concern about the future, especially financial worries. Some parents have ended their kids’ enrollment outright.

But for now, day care operators are hoping to do their best for the families that need them.

“At one time, we used the phrase, ‘It takes a village to raise a child; let us be part of that village,’” Sweezey said. “I still feel that way. We are all in this together, working to provide the best care we can.”

For more COVID-19 related news, see our section dedicated to COVID-19 updates.
  • Public Health and Safety reporter, spring 2020 Studying science, health and environmental journalism Reach me at genxfb@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

  • I'm the public safety and health editor at the Missourian and a professor in the School of Journalism. I'm experienced in directing investigative projects. Call me at (573) 882-1792 with story tips, ideas or complaints.

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