Child Care in Wisconsin – Part III

As child care centers in Wisconsin struggle to stay open, they are looking for guidance on best practices and resources to cover the additional costs and requirements for keeping young children safe. The Department of Children and Families as well as the CDC have provided recommendations, yet the decisions and implementation lies solely with the individual child care program to do as they are able.

CARES Act Funding

On April 28, the Department of Children and Families submitted a passive review plan to the Joint Finance Committee to spend the grant funds being made available through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES). The agency requested authority to spend $51.6 million in Federal Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) funding from the CARES Act. The memo states, “DCF requests these funds to provide support to child care providers that have stayed open in order to serve the children of essential workers during the pandemic, hazard pay for the child care workers that are serving these children, to support child care providers that have been forced to close during the pandemic, and to cover administrative costs incurred in response to the COVID-19 emergency.”

When the proposal was put forward, DCF estimated that due to declining enrollment and safety concerns, an estimated 40% of child care providers made the decision to close, however they still have costs like unemployment insurance and rent. Providers which remained open incurred additional expenses pertaining to health and safety. DCF wanted the funding to be used through three different grant program mechanisms. DCF anticipated approximately 2/3 of the new funding would be used for the essential worker grant programs with the remaining 1/3 going towards the remaining two grant programs.

The grant programs included:

  • Creating a grant program for child care providers serving essential worker families. Applicants include regulated child care providers or organizations providing care in collaboration with a regulated child care provider and were required to prioritize and provide care for essential workforce families. Funds could be used for items such as parent reimbursement for cost of care, mortgage/rent, utilities, materials/supplies for cleaning and sanitation.
  • Creating a grant program to provide hazard pay to child care employees. The program was limited to providers or individual educators who provided care to children of essential workforce families and the funds have to be used to pay current employees.
  • Creating a grant program to support child care providers that closed due to Covid-19. Applicants were eligible if they were a licensed or certified child care provider and were temporarily closed due to the pandemic. Applicants were required to plan to reopen in 2020 and must use the funds to pay staff while the program was closed.

The passive review request was approved by the Joint Finance Committee on May 15, 2020. On Thursday, July 30, 2020, DCF announced the results of the CARES Act grant funding program, saying, “Funding from Child Care Counts reached 2,712 providers. Payments allowed over 20,000 workers to receive pay and enabled nearly 80,000 children to continue their care during the pandemic.”

DCF Guidance and CDC Recommendations

DCF provided several guidance documents for the early care and education community to help them determine when to close, when to open, and how to reopen safely. The first document is the “Reopening Child Care During the Covid-19 Pandemic” which is a decision tree to help providers determine whether or not they should open. The second document is the “Badger Bounce Back Phase information and best practices for Group, Family, and School-Age Child Care Providers.” The document provides information on health and safety information; ratios, capacity, enrollment, and staffing; and other considerations. In addition, the DCF website provides links to additional information and guidance on:

  • Frequently asked questions.
  • Licensed day camp recommendations.
  • What to expect
  • Templates for family/parent agreements to address health and safety practices
  • Templates for daily health screening
  • Policy templates for sick children
  • Guidance for Wisconsin Shares Subsidy.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) also provided a website for “Supplemental Guidance for Child Care.” The website is very clear, using bold letters, to state, “This information is intended for child care programs that remain open and should be used in conjunction with CDC’s guidance for administrators of child care programs and K-12 schools. This guidance does not supersede applicable federal, state, and local laws and policies for child care programs.”

The Playing Field in Madison

The Wheeler Report spoke with Abbi Kruse, Executive Director at The Playing Field Child Care Center, located in Madison. The Playing Field is a unique child care center, providing early childhood care and education to children experiencing homelessness. The center is dedicated to minimizing the disparity between Madison’s children by providing care for children in need and children from more advantaged backgrounds.

Kruse said the center has about 1/3 of its students who get childcare assistance from Early Head Start funding, some of those are homeless, live in foster care, or are very low income. Another 1/3 of the students get childcare assistance, often a scholarship or through a subsidy from the state. The last 1/3 of the students pay full tuition.

The center opened five years ago and used a method whereby the students come in as one group and stay with the same teacher each year as they develop. Since many of these students are dealing with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) while they are developing, the center works to maintain a level of stability for them by maintaining the same teacher as they develop and prepare for school.

When Covid-19 first hit Wisconsin the center closed, and when the center re-opened, the model had to be changed, according to Kruse. First the students were put into new classes. The center worked to minimize the number of people in contact with one another, so the classes now keep siblings together, so the classes are now mixed ages. The classes have the same teachers all day, every day, and the teachers do not move between classes. The center has stopped using floating teachers between classes and they have eliminated substitute teachers. That means the center had to hire more full-time teachers and eliminate their part-time and substitute teaching positions. The classes now work with three teachers to a class instead of two so if one teacher gets sick the classes can continue.

The mission of the center focuses on bringing students of different backgrounds together, yet now all of the students who are bused have to be in the same classrooms. That means the students who are being picked up from homeless shelters or foster homes are no longer able to interact in a meaningful way with the students who are coming from more stable homes.

Kruse spent weeks researching best practices and looking at guidance from different organizations and still felt she was completely on her own to make decisions for her center and for the families she served. Kruse emphasized several times she felt she was on her own to make decisions with no guidance and no additional resources. Kruse said the state and the federal government both offered information, but she was not given specific guidance as to what she needed to do.  Everything was discretionary.  She said the only directive she was given was by that Dane County Public Health Department when they implemented the mask requirement for anyone five years of age or older. Kruse said the mask requirement created an additional logistical issue for the center. She said now with mixed aged classrooms some students must wear masks and others do not, including siblings. She said the students are taking their masks on and off, touching their face. She said it is simply not practical for all day wear by children.

Funding for additional costs is a major concern for Kruse. She said she has spent as much as $20,000 to reopen her center and likely cannot sustain the additional costs for more than a year before she would need to consider alternatives. Kruse said she had to add more fencing to increase the outside areas, and the classes spend as much time outside as they can. She said the CDC recommends that staff change their shirts anytime they have bodily contact with the children, and since she said that is not feasible, she invested in aprons for all her teachers which can be changed quickly and easily. Kruse said she purchased special UV lights for safety and spends an additional $895 a month for cleaning the center.

Kruse has many concerns about what the future is going to bring to the center and to the students and families being served. Wisconsin weather turns cold quickly, and while the students are able to spend a majority of the time outside right now, that will not continue to be the case as fall and winter arrive. Kruse said the center struggles with illnesses and colds during a typical cold and flu season and she has no idea what that could look like this year.  She said the guidance says anyone with a fever needs to stay out for 72 hours. She asked what that looked like, how that should be enforced, and told families that could realistically mean certain classes would have been canceled if teachers weren’t able to come in. Kruse said, “We are doing it, and we are doing it well, but this is not sustainable.” Kruse is concerned about the impact the current and future situation will have the children, highlighting these students are already at risk of ACEs and said the stress of unemployment, potential housing evictions, and more is weighing heavily on the parents. She said the students seem to be weathering things OK right now, because the center is a source of stability for them, but she said, “The families are beginning to buckle.”

Kruse expressed concerns that the elementary schools cannot open, but the early childcare centers should. She said the centers are now being pressured to take school age children and they are not being given resources or guidance to do it. She emphasized that she believes it is important to protect elementary school teachers, staff, and children, but highlighted that the same deference is not being given to early childhood center kids and families. Kruse said, “We have fewer resources than public schools and we are doing more with less.”  Kruse ended the interview by saying, “We need help. We do love children, but we need resources to continue.”