With New Safety Protocols in Place, Child Care Centers Continue to Reopen

METAIRIE – The child care industry was hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic but more and more facilities are reopening to provide a service that will be essential to the revival of the economy in New Orleans and elsewhere.

The Jefferson Ready Start Network, a nonprofit advocate for early education, said that approximately 75% of the more than 120 licensed child care centers in Jefferson Parish shut down during the pandemic. Now, according to the Louisiana Department of Education, nearly 70% of the centers statewide are back up and running in some capacity.

Paula Polito HeadshotPaula Polito, the owner of the Bear-y Cherry Tree Child Development Center in Metairie and a Ready Start council member, said the process of reviving the industry in Jefferson Parish is going “incredibly well” considering the low profit margins most operators contend with under normal circumstances combined with the challenges presented by new protocols and lower enrollment. The priority, she said, is resuming operations while maintaining high standards of safety for children and educators.

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“The pandemic has been incredibly difficult for our industry,” said Polito. “It has increased costs for supplies and labor plus initially we were mandated to have smaller group sizes per teacher. Meanwhile, a lot of parents are still uncertain if it’s safe to return to child care so now we’re trying to operate with these additional obstacles in place.”

Few of the parish’s facilities were in a great position to survive the shutdown without financial help, said Polito. So most licensed child care operators – which are essentially small businesses overseen by the Louisiana Department of Education – applied for financial assistance from the Paycheck Protection Program or other SBA programs.

“I know a lot of child care centers took advantage of the PPP and they were able to get through a few weeks with that,” said Polito. “But it’s been difficult because the enrollment numbers just aren’t there and we’re needing to hire additional labor because we’re offering curbside dropoff and pickup.”

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Other new expenses include masks and sanitation supplies plus the labor costs of delivering meals to classrooms and taking temperatures of everyone who comes into the building. In addition, temporarily reduced hours means a loss of revenue.

“I can assure you that most centers did not have three months of reserves available,” she said. “As beautiful as that sounds, it’s not how most childcare centers operate, so the Louisiana Department of Education has released two sets of grants to help child care centers basically just survive. Many legislators understand that in order to get our economy back, we have to get our child care centers back. If parents can’t access us, they can’t get back to work.”

Polito said many centers began operating again at the beginning of June and more are coming online every week. Encouraging reports about the lack of COVID-19 spread in child care facilities will likely inspire more places to open. Polito’s own business, located near Clearview Mall, opened its doors to children on June 9 – albeit at less than half its normal capacity of 225 children.

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Lobbying for More Help

Polito said the Jefferson Ready Start Network, a coalition created a year ago with seed money from the Louisiana Department of Education, has had “boots on the ground” throughout the crisis to help operators get back to business. In her role with the group, Polito was recently lobbying for more federal funding for families who can’t afford childcare on their own.

“We have been working at the state and federal level,” said Polito. “I just talked to Steve Scalise’s chief of staff to highlight the importance of what we do and not so much that we need lip service … we need you to fund that. We need you to increase child care assistance seats. We need you to fund the birth-to-three seats, because there are families who cannot currently access us because they can’t afford it.”

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