Maritza Ceballos teaches preschool at Lighthouse for Children in Fresno. (Photo by Zaidee Stavely/EdSource)

Thousands of preschool and child care programs remain open across California even as the number of children attending continues to drop amid fears of spreading the coronavirus.

That’s putting a strain on both businesses, which increasingly face closure, and parents, who struggle to take care of young children at home while also working.

Jamie Sanbonmatsu tried to keep her preschool open after San Luis Obispo County closed all public K-12 schools last week. But by the end of the week, only 5 the 72 children enrolled were attending.

So Sanbonmatsu decided to close the nonprofit preschool, Valley View Children’s Center. Now, like other preschool and child care center directors and family child care providers statewide, she is faced with other gut-wrenching decisions — how to pay her teachers and whether to charge families tuition when they are not receiving child care services.

“My greatest anxiety right now is taking care of my staff,” Sanbonmatsu said. “Early childhood staff is underpaid. We do it because we love it. They all have bills and families to support, too.”

As of March 25, 5,035 child care centers and family child care homes reported they had closed because of the coronavirus, according to the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, a network of agencies that support providers and help families find child care. That number represents a small fraction — about 12 percent — of the total number of licensed child care and preschool programs in California, which is about 40,000. However, some programs may not have reported closures to the state yet.

Providers report closures to the California Department of Social Services Community Care Licensing Division. Although that agency did not provide EdSource with the most recent numbers, it is providing a daily update to the resource and referral network.

State guidelines

Under the statewide order to shelter in place, child care programs can stay open for the children of health care providers, grocery store workers and other essential workers. They must now adhere to new health and safety guidelines, such as no more than 12 children in each group, screening children and staff for fever and other symptoms and increased cleaning and hand-washing.

Child care providers and advocates are asking Gov. Gavin Newsom and Congress for emergency funding to help closed child care businesses pay their workers, and to help those that stay open meet new guidelines and keep workers and children safe. The federal stimulus package proposed in Congress includes loans and grants for small businesses that have closed due to the coronavirus so they can cover payroll, rent and utility expenses. It also includes emergency funding for child care programs to stay open to care for the children of essential workers and continue to pay staff salaries for programs with decreased enrollment.

About 70 percent of child care center directors who responded to a poll conducted this week on social media by Californians for Quality Early Learning (CQEL) said they had closed. CQEL is a membership organization that provides training, curriculum resources and policy information to child care centers statewide.

“Our providers are making a really challenging decision between staying open and putting their families and children at risk while maintaining services, or closing and putting their families, their teachers and their programs in a financially challenging situation,” said Dave Esbin, executive director of CQEL.

When early learning programs close, that leaves parents and guardians to take care of children at home, often while also trying to work from home. That’s particularly challenging with young children, who need constant supervision and interaction. It can also be a financial strain for parents, especially if they have to pay for other care and continue to pay tuition to the provider that has closed.

Shandra Anderson is now working from home in San Clemente, in Orange County, while also taking care of her 8-year-old and 2-year-old sons. Her brother is caring for her younger son part of the day, but he can’t do it full time.

“It’s chaotic. It’s completely chaotic,” Anderson said. “I feel bad. He’s safe, he’s in the room with me, but I have to take calls every once in a while, and he doesn’t understand.”

Anderson is paying her brother to watch her younger son. In addition, she was also just charged the monthly preschool tuition — $1,000 — for April, though it’s not clear when the preschool will reopen.

“We don’t want to see anything happen to the school,” Anderson said. “We love the teachers. We love the program. But is it right that we are being charged for full services that we aren’t receiving?”

Some providers receive subsidies for children in low-income families, and the state will continue to pay those subsidies, even if the center closes. But many child care centers would not be able to stay in business without receiving tuition paid by parents or government aid. Parents often sign a contract when they enroll their children stating that they still have to pay tuition, even if their child does not attend, or if the center is closed due to an emergency. Some child care centers have opted to refund part of families’ March tuition or have not charged for April, but some centers are still charging.

Nora McBride is now caring for her 18-month-old granddaughter, Sofia, at home in Fresno, after Lighthouse for Children child care center closed until at least April 13. McBride, who is Sofia’s guardian, works supervising legal assistants at the U.S. Attorney’s Office at the U.S. District Court in Fresno, which is currently closed. She’s not sure how she will find or pay for care for Sofia if she needs to telecommute or go back to work at the courthouse.

In the meantime, McBride bought books, finger paint and clay and set up a little table for Sofia in her living room.

“But it’s not the same,” McBride said. When Sofia went to Lighthouse for Children, McBride said she was happy to see her friends and her teachers. Now she doesn’t understand why she has to stay at home. “It’s just kind of sad. It really is.”

More child care programs are expected to close in the near future.

Keisha Nzewi, director of public policy for the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, said family child care providers, who run programs out of their own homes, are more likely to still be open but have expressed concern about having to close. The network is made up of agencies in every county that help parents find child care and help providers get training and licensing.

“Many, many have expressed fear of having to close this week because they cannot get the cleaning supplies they need or the food they need to stay open,” Nzewi said.

Hard to get basic supplies

Providers are having trouble finding toilet paper, paper towels, diapers, bleach, disinfectant spray, wipes, soap and food to feed the children in their care, she said.

Dana Schmalz cares for four children in her home in El Dorado Hills, near Sacramento, in addition to her own two children. Only one family is keeping their child home.

“I’m supposed to be feeding the 2-year-olds 1 percent milk, but there was no 1 percent milk left,” Dana said. “There was also no meat left. I’m supposed to be feeding them meat with their meals. The grocery stores are also limiting eggs.”

Schmalz said she has had to tell her own children, a 2-year-old and a 7-year-old, they can’t have milk with their cereal because she needs to serve it to the children she cares for.

Another family child care provider, Raquel Castro, from Sanger, in Fresno County, said she wishes she could close, because she is concerned about the health of her family.

“I don’t want to be working, but if I stop working, I won’t be paid,” she said.

Meanwhile, Sambonmatsu is considering reopening her preschool in San Luis Obispo County again in April for the children of essential workers, but with smaller group sizes to comply with new health guidelines.

“Whoever thought this would happen?” Sanbonmatsu said. “We’re in uncharted waters.”

Story originally published by EdSource.