Local Providers Upended By Pandemic’s Daycare Dilemma

DESPITE THE PANDEMIC LOOMING in the background, children carry on with their daycare activites at Little Cottage Montessori in Falls Church. Enrollment has dropped sharply for Little Cottage as well as other area daycares, with some providers worried staff will move on to new jobs if the dip in child care persists. (Photo: Courtesy Little Cottage Montessori)

The state’s new rules for in-home daycare put both parents and providers in a bind, but some local in-home providers are striving to work within the guidelines and stay in business.

From her home on Allan Avenue in Falls Church, Sharika Ismael runs Little Cottage Montessori, an in-home school she founded in 2013, after receiving certification from the Association Montessori Internationale, the school founded originally by Dr. Maria Montessori in 1929.

With close to 20 years of intensive training in Montessori education, two hired teachers and a full complement of 12 enrolled children, Ismael built and directed one of the only in-home Montessori programs in the area, specializing in creating what Dr. Montessori termed, in Italian, the “Nido” or, in English, the “nest” environment, for her young pupils (from newborns to three-year-olds).

Over the last few weeks, however, as enrolled parents have kept their children at home, the numbers in her Nido have dropped from 12 to only two or three children per day.

The dip is due to the Virginia Department of Social Services’ (VDSS) recently updated regulations for in-home daycare providers in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. VDSS is seeking to safeguard public health during the crisis, however, the financial viability of home-based daycare businesses in the area could be jeopardized by the new guidelines.

On March 20, the VDSS website announced that state authorities are “closely monitoring the Covid-19 pandemic and all guidance being distributed to child care facilities at the federal level.” The agency recognized that it will be “very challenging for programs to remain open, given the circumstances and federal and state mandates.”

Under federal and state guidelines, licensed in-home providers who used to be allowed as many as 12 children in their programs now have to limit capacity to “10 individuals per room, including staff.”

In addition to limiting enrollments, in-home daycare providers will have to implement a raft of new safety and instructional measures under the department’s’ revised guidelines.

Posting signs and instructing children and adults about the requirements of social distancing of six feet or more between all individuals is required.

“If items are being shared, remind children not to touch their faces and [to] wash their hands after,” the guidelines stipulate. “Physically rearrange the room to promote individual play,” the site suggests, and try to “eliminate large group activities.”

Protocols for monitoring students’ daily health and temperatures upon entry, having students eat separately, keeping touchable surfaces disinfected, requiring frequent hand-washing throughout the day, providing proper disinfectant cleaners for staff, and how to handle sick children, workers, and parents, are all established.

“This is an evolving situation and the circumstances change daily,” said Amanda Rogers, the Communications Director for the Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood and Community Services, which supervises the City of Falls Church’s in-home daycare services. “It is currently at the discretion of individual child care programs to remain open.”

The City of Falls Church has four registered in-home daycare providers, while Fairfax County has 1,500, she relayed. Of those, 557 participate as critical U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food “vendors in the state child care subsidy program.”

“I think for smaller providers, the guidance to have 10 individuals or fewer in a classroom is going to put them in a bit of a situation where they’re going to have to determine if they’re going to stay open,” said Sakina Jackson, Deputy Director of Child Care Aware of Virginia.

Some of the larger providers in and around the City of Falls Church, including The Falls Church Montessori and For CommuniKids Preschool and Children’s Language Centers, are closed until April 10 and 24, respectively.

The CommuniKids’ 120 students will be receiving “remote learning” instruction using Google Hangouts, “following best practices from the National Association for the Education of Young Children,” according to Raul Echevarria, President and Co-Founder. While Echevarria feels confident the school has the tuition base and strong community needed to weather the epidemic’s storm, he and his staff are quite concerned about what might happen if tuition drops off significantly in the coming weeks.

“This is a scary time,” he said, “Our school relies on tuition to be able to continue to pay our teachers and keep the lights on. Fortunately, we have a community that is rising to the occasion and helping us by continuing to pay tuition and providing much needed emotional support to our team.”

To be cautious, however, the school administration has submitted a Small Business Administration disaster relief application and is looking into whether the CARES Act [Congress’s recent relief package] might provide relief should enrollment decline precipitously.

Falls Church Montessori could not be reached for comment, but on March 28 it informed followers of its Twitter feed that if tuition dries up, large numbers of staff will have to be let go.

“Our school will not survive, if we all collectively aim to ‘pause in place,’” the tweet read. “Ultimately staffing down can be brutally quick. However, rebuilding will not be so…To assemble this group has taken decades. If we lose our people, we will likely not get them back….”

Since the VDSS and federal guidelines were put into effect, Ismael decided to remain open despite her drop in daily attendance and parent fears starting to spike. She, too, is uncertain about receiving any aid from the $2 trillion relief package that Congress passed last week.

“I have spoken to a couple of other providers and they are just taking the bullet right now,” Ismael said, “I heard from one in Springfield and they have just totally shut down. The others are only half open, and only for the emergency personnel.”

Even before the regulations were made official, however, Ismael had notified parents of new health and safety protocols she would implement on her own.

“They all said, ‘Sharika, you do whatever you have to do.’ So, they are very supportive — thank God!” Ismael said after she announced her new protocols by email.

For example Matt Quinn, the owner and operator of Quinn’s Auction Gallery in downtown Falls Church, and his wife are highly appreciative of Ismael’s protocols as well as the outstanding schooling their two-and-a-half year old daughter has been receiving.

Many parents are choosing to keep their children at home and are unsure about continuing their monthly tuition payments. According to Ismael, they are “taking it week by week.”

“I would say that Sharika has been pretty strict with her guidelines, even quite ahead of what the county decided, and I appreciate that,” said another parent client, who wished to remain anonymous, “…she closes early each day to allow her and the teachers to do a deep cleaning, so, definitely I appreciate that, given the circumstances.”

When this client’s four-year old daughter became panicked over how the coronavirus might impact her family, Ismael helped reassure the girl, a touching moment this mom will never forget.

The school’s current health and safety protocols are instituted right when parents drop off their children in the mornings.

As they drive up, Ismael greets each car on the sidewalk to take children’s temperatures, parents are then asked about whether the child has had medications to lower fever and questions are posed about the health of others at home. If any illness is presented, even seasonal allergies, children may not attend until cleared. As soon as the children arrive, all shoes are kept outside, and the many hand-washings and complex safety rituals are undertaken for the learning day to begin.