Working parents often rely on daycare providers, many of whom are uncertain at this time as to whether they should continue to operate. 

“We’re on the edge of our seats—are we closing, are we not closing?” said Nicole Simon, who operates Moab’s Little Sprouts Academy daycare out of her home.

A recent order from the Southeast Utah Health Department prohibits public gatherings of more than 10 people; many daycare providers have licenses to watch more than 10 kids at a time. Some daycare providers say they want clearer guidance from the health department.

Simon is licensed to care for 16 children, with one assistant, making a full-capacity operating day a gathering of 18 people. Simon said she has taken on school-aged kids during the hours they would normally be at school, and her roster is full right now. She said messaging from state agencies has been mixed. Early in the pandemic, state childcare licensing websites posted that childcare providers would not be penalized for going over their licensed capacity to take on more children, Simon said. Later, they pedaled back that statement, advising daycare providers to stay within their license limits and even consider reducing the size of their groups.

In addition to concerns about spreading the virus through gatherings of kids, Simon said necessary supplies are difficult to obtain. Daycare centers are struggling to stay stocked on hand sanitizer, hand soap, and disinfectants, as well as wholesome staple foods for their kids. Daycare operators can be licensed to provide meals subsidized by the same USDA program that provides free and reduced lunches for public school students. Simon said she knows some daycare providers who have had trouble finding meal components that comply with USDA nutritional guidelines.

In spite of her qualms with remaining open, Simon isn’t sure how families she serves will cope if daycares do close. One parent she works with is a teacher and is now staying at home. However, plenty of parents still need daycare services.

“I have quite a few kids who have parents that still have to work,” Simon said.

She also emphasized that her center provides crucial nutrition for some kids.

“I’m very worried that some of the kids I have won’t be able to eat” if the daycare closes, she said.

Shylo Robertson operates Little Boy Blue Daycare out of her home, and she shares many of Simon’s concerns. She has been calling the Health Department asking for guidance. She said Orion Rogers, environmental health director of the Southeast Utah Health Department, has been sympathetic.

“He said that he’s in the process of trying to help us,” said Robertson. “We realize this is not a ‘snap-our-fingers’ kind of thing.” However, she said some kind of information would relieve anxiety. She has called state officials and asked if there is a threshold or a trigger point that would initiate a shut-down of a childcare business.

“No one can give us that,” she said.“They really don’t have any guidance for us other than to tell people to wash their hands.”

Both she and Simon emphasized they are focusing on hygiene even more than they normally would.

Clear direction from public health officials would relieve individual providers from the painful decision of whether they should close.

“It would be a relief; it would also be disappointing,” Robertson said of a hypothetical direction to close.

“It’s a hard call, as a business owner, to know what to do in this situation,” she said.

At the same time, she said, “We don’t want to affect families any more than they’re already being affected.”

Robertson said that several parents she works with are staying home from work with their kids, so she isn’t currently operating at full capacity—she is also licensed to watch 16 children. She, too, mentioned supply shortages as a concern.

“We’re not out of supplies right now, but when you’re out is not the best time to go look either,” she noted.

Along with concerns about kids spreading germs among themselves, daycare providers like Robertson worry about their own families. Robertson has two family members who have compromised immune systems. They don’t live with her, but she says staying away from them for two full weeks would be difficult if she needed to quarantine herself.

Messages from public health officials

Providers are to contact their local health department if a child or employee tests positive for the virus or may have been exposed to the virus. The health department said it will be running expedited background checks for emergency caregivers needed to care for children due to an influx of children and/or a shortage of caregivers.

Brittney Garff is the Public Information Officer for the Southeast Utah Health Department. She said the department is planning further discussions of the daycare issue, and anticipate publishing some form of guidance in the coming days.

For now, Garff said, the Health Department recommends that daycares providing for more than ten children either change their operations or close so that they can adhere to public health advice that gatherings remain at ten people or smaller. She said that if a provider’s internal policies and facilities allow, that could mean a 16-child daycare center splitting into two groups and operating in two separate rooms.

“We have to think a little bit more about it,” Garff said, acknowledging the complexity of the issue.

Garff also emphasized that daycare providers should not accept sick children at their centers. The Utah website for childcare licensing directs providers to contact their local health departments for further instructions.

“Providers are to contact their local health department if a child or employee tests positive for the virus or may have been exposed to the virus,” says the website, childcarelicensing.utah.gov.

The website also says the state will be supporting “expedited background checks” so providers can emergency-hire licensed caregivers. However, background checks require fingerprinting; in a Mar. 12 Facebook post, the Moab Police Department said it was suspending fingerprinting services for the public, with an unspecified time frame.

The website also contains frequently asked questions links for families, providers, businesses and schools. These pages reiterate the recommendation that parents look to friends and family first for support. They also give direction on how subsidies for daycare providers will be affected by any changes implemented in response to the health crisis and a variety of other topics. Links to the FAQ pages can be found at childcarelicensing.utah.gov.

A holding pattern

Simon said that the school-aged kids she is caring for are somewhat restless without the level of engagement they’re used to at school. It’s a difficult balance for her to care for a large, mixed group of toddlers and older children.

“There’s a lot of big kids and they’re not really comfortable in a daycare,” she said.

Robertson said her kids are not noticeably reacting to the uncertainty.

“My daycare kids don’t really seem to be super affected by it,” said Robertson. “We’ve kept things pretty normal other than hyping up hand sanitizing and handwashing.”

Parents are a different story.

“Parents are super-stressed,” Robertson said. Some local daycare centers, such as Happy Days, have already opted to close. Guidance from the Department of Workforce Services and the Utah Department of Health advises parents to first look for support from family and friends for childcare help. Robertson pointed out that not all parents in the area have this kind of support network available.

For now, Robertson and Simon are both taking it one day at a time. Robertson said she texts parents each night at 7 p.m. to let them know whether she will open the next day.

“I don’t know what tomorrow holds,” Simon said.

In a Mar. 18 press call, Rogers said the health department will be advising daycares to limit to 10 people, including the kids and the staff, and to do daily “interviews” of the parents asking if the child is sick, or if anybody within the household is sick. However, in a message to Simon later that day, Rogers said that the health department is not limiting daycare centers to ten children.