Daycares balance safety, need

Daycare providers understand the risks involved with being around dozens of children amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Many have asked parents to find alternate options for daycare until the health scare passes.

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Local News

March 26, 2020 - 10:22 AM

Rigley Ikehorn works on a paper at Growing Place, a Humboldt daycare facility. Photo by Whitney Ikehorn / Iola Register

Crystal and Mark Wehlage don’t have many options when it comes to daycare for their 7-year-old daughter, Sutton.

Crystal is a home health nurse for the elderly, putting her in direct contact with those most vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, Crystal’s job comes with risks.

Her husband, Mark, works for John Deere. 

Their extended family consists of older relatives, preventing the Wehlages from leaving their daughter with them for fear of exposing them to potential illness.

Even with their options limited, the Wehlage family still has reservations about sending Sutton to The Growing Place, a daycare and preschool in Humboldt.

The Growing Place remains open, but they’ve asked parents to find alternate daycare options if possible, director Tina Friend said. That’s out of concern for the health and wellbeing of the children as well as those who come in contact with them, she said.

A survey of local daycare and preschool providers shows that attendance has dropped significantly, mostly at the request of the providers as they attempt to slow the spread of illness and follow state recommendations that limit crowds to 10 people or fewer.

Three providers who visited with The Register said they’re taking extra precautions for cleaning and sanitization. They’re taking temperatures of children on a regular basis. They’re asking parents questions about any potential exposure to COVID-19 or travel to affected areas. They keep parents in lobbies or at the front door, and try to limit contacts between people.

They’re keeping class sizes small and encouraging students to spread out. They’re asking parents to find alternate daycare if possible, and working with those like the Wehlage family who don’t have other options.

They’re adjusting meal plans, as local grocery stores are sometimes stripped bare amid fears the state will order residents to shelter in place.

They’re also preparing for the possibility that the state will order them to close, although so far Gov. Laura Kelly has said that daycares are considered “an essential business.”

It’s an uncertain time. 

SUTTON WEHLAGE was the only school-aged child at The Growing Place on Monday. She missed her friends, but she enjoyed the one-on-one attention, her mom said.

“I think she knows something is wrong, but being 7 she isn’t able to process exactly what is going on,” Crystal said. “She knows she can’t go back to school because we’re worried people might get sick.”

It’s been difficult on the children and staff alike, the daycare providers said.

It’s important to keep things as “normal” as possible for the sake of the children, Mona Hull, owner of Kid’s Kingdom, said.

“At the end of the day, you don’t want their world revolving on fear. You’ve got to keep calm for them,” Hull said. 

“The ones who are coming are used to their daily routine. They’re still happy. They still play. They still wrap their arms around you. We try to remind them of social distancing but when they are 1 and 2, they don’t understand that. We’re trying to teach them the fist bump.”

At The Growing Place, the reduction in children allows staff to lower the student-teacher ratio. Friend said they’re making sure each child has the same teachers and that interaction between the children is limited. That way, if an illness does break out they can limit and track the potential spread to others.

One of the biggest challenges the daycares have faced is purchasing food and supplies. Essential items like toilet paper, disinfectant, milk and bread are in short supply at local stores. Both Hull and Megan McKarnin of Munchkinland and More Daycare and Preschool, said they’ve faced problems buying in bulk.

Hull said she has to send three or four of her staff out shopping, so that each can purchase the maximum number of items like gallons of milk. McKarnin complained that local stores weren’t willing to make an exception for her business, but she and Hull praised G & W Foods for accommodating their needs.

“We’re just like everybody else out there. We’re trying to make sure we have the supplies we need,” Hull said. “For a while we were having a milk crisis. Milk just wasn’t available.”

The state has relaxed some of its nutritional requirements, providing the staff document and explain substitutions. Hull said that’s made things a little easier.

“That’s where communication comes in,” Hull said. “We’re staying in constant communication with our parents, our staff, our local health department, and with the other providers. We all want to be on the same page and do the best we can for our families.”

Sherry Orear, owner and director at Ready Set Learn Preschool, said her business is a little different. She’s only licensed as a preschool and works with USD 257. The governor’s order to close schools for the remainder of the year meant she also closed her preschool, but remained available until families could find alternate daycare. 

Like teachers in public schools, she’s preparing packets for students to work on at home. 

And like the other teachers, she’s looking to technology to find ways to stay connected to her students. She and McKarnin at Munchkinland, which also serves USD 257, organized a virtual read-along for students earlier this week. 

She also organized a “bear hunt” on Facebook, encouraging businesses to put toy bears in their windows and asking parents to walk downtown with their children to spot them.

“We’re going to take it as it comes and have fun,” she said. “We want to do things so kids see our faces and let them know we’re still here.”

THE SITUATION changes every day, as the number of coronavirus cases increases in Kansas. More than half of the state’s residents — those in the Kansas City, Lawrence, Topeka and Wichita areas — have been told to shelter in place and avoid leaving home unless they work at an essential business or need to get groceries. 

The Growing Place is licensed for 82 children, but currently has about 17 or 18 each day.

Kid’s Kingdom usually has about 55, but now has between 20 and 30.

So far, the state has not closed daycares and considers them essential businesses. 

Friend said if the state orders the closing of daycares, some of her staff have offered to babysit for families that don’t have other options. They’re also suggesting parents contact high school or college students; even though education has mostly been moved online, students may have the flexibility to do school work and babysit.

The Wehlage family has made arrangements with someone who would watch Sutton at home, if The Growing Place were to close. And if that doesn’t work out, Crystal is considering other options. As a nurse, Crystal also keeps health concerns at the forefront.

“You don’t know how long the pandemic is going to last,” she said. “Are we leaving her with someone who is able to meet her needs and keep up with her educational learning? Planning and flexibility are essential, but coming up with backup plans has been really difficult.”

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