Georgia may be reopening for business, but most preschools and daycares are closed and many will remain that way due to the challenges of operating under a pandemic.
As of Friday, two-thirds of the big centers were shuttered, as were a third of the smaller mom-and-pop businesses, according to the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning. Because coronavirus safety regulations dictate that no more than nine children can occupy the same classroom — the maximum for infants is six — those that are open are typically well under capacity.
The state never ordered these facilities to close and some that remained open said they were focusing on essential workers, such as medical personnel. But safety requirements have made operation difficult. Even those that can get beyond the health concerns of staff and families face logistical challenges, such as acquiring the mandatory material to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“It is hard to get both masks and gloves, but also cleaning supplies,” said Mindy Binderman, the founding executive director of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students.
Some have closed out of fear of the virus.
“If I lost a child or lost a staff member because we went back to make money, I couldn’t live with that,” said Michele Hill, president and chief executive of Kidazzle Child Care. She polled staff and they preferred to remain closed. The company had money to tide them over until government unemployment payments started.
Hill has six locations, four in Georgia, in and around Atlanta. The one in Hampton south of the city is the only one she is considering reopening because it’s relatively rural and the infection numbers are relatively low, but not until mid-May and only if staff agree. “It’s just too scary,” she said.
Childcare centers and homes, like all closed businesses, face financial peril though, so some are trying to reopen.
Edye Disner, the director of Dunwoody Prep, has been paying her staff while giving parents partial and even full breaks on tuition. They’ve gotten by with virtual schooling, but given the age of the children — the oldest are 5 — parents typically have to work alongside them.
Some need a break.
Disner is able to give them one. Two years ago, her school wrote an emergency plan with help from local police. It called for masks, so they have enough on hand for all the teachers. Thinking ahead, she also bought a couple thermometers in March, but recently needed a third and found the price had doubled.
Colleagues at other schools have told Disner they cannot find masks.
“That’s part of the reason I believe a lot of programs are not opening,” she said.
She must follow strict pandemic rules about routine disinfection and screening for symptoms. Parents and children will be screened at arrival by a staffer in a mask, gloves and face shield.
Despite the precautions, the parents of only 20 of her 185 students are expected to return when she reopens May 4. She said that even under the new social distancing requirements she has capacity for 105.
May 4 cannot come soon enough for Gil Eisner, who juggles a job in international development and two rambunctious boys ages 5 and 7.
Eisner, 40, can work from home, but the demands of his job have not relented since the public health emergency started. When he closes the door for a meeting, they bang on it. When he sends them out into the backyard, he has to keep one eye on work and another on them.
“It’s been a month of hell,” Eisner said, adding that he fears his youngest will be unprepared for kindergarten in the fall.
That’s mainly why he wants him back at preschool.
Eisner acknowledges a risk of infection, but said he follows the news and is comforted that children rarely suffer significant consequences from the disease.
Others are more apprehensive, especially now that the state is reopening.
Elena Andrejkovic initially told Disner she would be sending her daughter back to the school, but after Gov. Brian Kemp said Monday that he was reopening the state for business, she began to worry that infection rates would rise.
Both she and her husband work from home in information technology and, like Eisner, have seen no slackening in demands.
As an only child, their daughter, 4, has no one to play with and winds up watching television a lot.
Andrejkovic trusts Dunwoody Prep is doing its best for safety, but wonders how some of the protocols will play out, especially the one about relying on children to wear masks.
“How do you keep a 4-year-old from taking off a mask?”