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Texas day cares are closing just when some parents need them more than ever

Children play during class at a pre-school in Texas.   (Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune)
Children play during class at a pre-school in Texas. (Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune)

Heather Martinez now takes every child’s temperature at the door to Happy Octopus Early Education, the day care she runs from her home in Corpus Christi, following a new state regulation for child care centers issued as COVID-19 cases continue to surge across Texas.

She disinfects tables, sanitizes toys and requires parents to stand outside the door at pick up and drop off each day. But she worries the new rules are not enough to keep everyone healthy: It’s hard to stop infants from putting toys in their mouths, let alone expect them to stay six feet away from one another.

“I know they want us to practice social distancing. But these little ones don’t even understand the concept of personal space,” Martinez said.

Child care is becoming scarcer across Texas even as some working parents need it more desperately. At least 14% of Texas’ more than 17,000 licensed and registered facilities have closed, according to an informal state survey, and that number seems to be rising. There’s no count of how many unlicensed operations have shuttered.

Many parents working from home have pulled their children from day care, unwilling to take the risks. But police officers, doctors, nurses, grocery store clerks and others with essential jobs need somebody to watch and protect their children as they try to continue working. With schools closed, there are few places for them to turn.

About 1.1 million Texas children were in state-licensed and registered home day care centers before the new coronavirus struck, including about 127,000 low-income students receiving subsidies, according to state estimates. The number of available slots is decreasing across the state.

Gov. Greg Abbott's order last Thursday to shut down many businesses — including bars, restaurants and schools — did not apply to the thousands of private child care centers that take in infants and young children.

Without a statewide mandate, day care owners like Martinez are left to decide if they should stay open, and how many children to accept. They are following the newest Texas Health and Human Services Commission safety guidelines as best they can, hoping their businesses survive. Some are watching student attendance drop precipitously, and fearing an outbreak of the disease.

“Child care centers are very conflicted about the safety of staying open, yet they’re dedicated to children and families,” said Stephanie Rubin, chief executive officer of Texans Care for Children.

While only a small percentage of infants and young children are among those who have died or been hospitalized with COVID-19, some researchers think they may spread it more easily than adults. Not all parents feel they can take that risk by sending their infant to child care.

London Hall has chronic flare-ups of Epstein-Barr Virus disease, which means she gets sick easily and more severely than most. Having her children bring the virus home from day care is not a gamble she is willing to take.

Though her local child care center in Keller, outside of Dallas, is still open, Hall decided to keep her 2-year-old and 13-month-old at home with her, feasible because she is a public school teacher and all schools are temporarily closed. But she is still paying $255 weekly for her children's spots, afraid to withdraw them from the competitive child care center in case it opens again soon. “If they’re shutting down the schools, they should shut down child care, too,” she said.

On Tuesday, the Texas Workforce Commission, which subsidizes child care for low-income families, approved measures giving essential workers priority and subsidized access to child care, and helping bolster the day care centers seeing their income rapidly dry up. It will also look into creating a statewide database of centers with available seats, so essential workers can quickly find quality care.

But the state still needs to waivers from the federal government to make many of those changes. In the meantime, local advocates at the county and city levels have already started matching businesses that employ essential workers with child care centers that have open slots, while looking for public and private funds to keep the system going. Some are even working with schools to make their buildings available for child care while school-age students are learning from home.

As more county judges order residents to stay home, some are restricting child care operators to be open only for the children of essential workers. The industries considered essential may differ locally.

Many essential workers are currently struggling to pay for their own child care, according to Kara Waddell, the president of nonprofit Child Care Associates who is leading a Tarrant County child care task force. “That might work for physicians, but nurses, janitorial staff and others are struggling to figure out what they’re going to do. Families are in a tough spot as they make choices.”

As the state continues to seek federal waivers to ease the financial burden on child care centers and low-income parents, small business owners and families are in limbo. Many parents working from home are pulling their children out of day care, leaving some smaller businesses without enough students to warrant staying open. Martinez had just one child show up for day care last Friday, five fewer than normal.

Even the most mundane tasks have become insurmountable. Martinez went grocery shopping on Sunday at Sam’s Club and couldn’t find the baked fries or frozen vegetables she usually purchases for lunch and snack. She stocked up on sanitizing spray but is already starting to run out. “I’m going to have to close because I can’t provide food or I’m going to have to close because I can’t provide the cleanliness we need,” Martinez said.

Martinez serves some parents who work in essential businesses, including grocery stores and hospitals, who need her to stay open. Despite the hit her own business would take, she urges parents who can afford to work from home to keep their kids with them: “There’s no reason why you should put your little one out there to take that risk.”

Not everyone is toughing it out. When the Granbury Independent School District closed indefinitely earlier this month, Phoebe Whitney decided to shut down nearby Radiant Truth Christian Academy, the child care center she runs out of her home west of Dallas. After she did, six of 12 families told her they planned to unenroll their children, meaning she will no longer receive their weekly payments, on average about $80 per child.

“That was a very big shock to me. I did have some tears over that,” she said. “I was like, ‘It would be nice if you would just wait it out with me and see.’” Now, she is increasing her hours teaching English online and hoping her husband is able to continue his work as an HVAC technician.

If the state were to order all day care closed, hundreds of teachers and other child care workers would find themselves working fewer hours or unemployed, similar to those struggling in other state-shuttered industries during the crisis. And parents who cannot work from home would be forced to make tough decisions between leaving small children at home alone or forgoing an income.

That’s true for Angela Pickering, a mother of a 4-year-old in Killeen, in Central Texas, who lost her federal early child care program when the local school district closed, and then struggled to find a private day care that would take her son. She can’t take her son to her regular event catering and delivery gigs during the day, so she has been staying home.

“I’m a single mom. I don’t have a significant other helping,” she said. “Without a job, I can’t provide for my family.”