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Child care returning

When Kids First Child Development Center closed in mid-March with the governor’s coronavirus shutdown, it led to anxiety for CEO Jackie Clouser, whose worries centered on parents lacking care for their kids and employees lacking jobs — but whose company was also destined to lose most of its revenue for two months.

With the center beginning to receive children again this week, following Blair County’s entry into the yellow phase of recovery, “it’s a really good feeling,” said Clouser, who’s likely to receive some of the $106 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act money allocated for child care providers in Pennsylvania — almost half of which is being released now, according to a governor’s office news release Wednesday.

“Without (child care providers’) service, we cannot have a fully functional economy, and we are committed to helping them weather this tumultuous period,” DHS Secretary Teresa Miller said in the news release, adding that providers “are undoubtedly feeling the current strain.”

Kids First furloughed most of its employees when the shutdown began, but remained operational online with the help of a pair of grants, serving the families of about 100 pre-K children and those of 50 infants and toddlers, according to Clouser.

The company also worked with a local bank to obtain a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, whose loans can become grants if companies used the money to keep employees on the payroll, Clouser said.

But Kids First is probably going to need to give back the money, due to a combination of the eight-week time limit for spending it, a limit that is ending soon, and due to the unemployment compensation program, which is paying employees not only half their salaries, but an additional $600 a week — making the benefits more attractive for furloughed workers than their regular paychecks through PPP would be, according to Clouser.

It’s ironic that the same legislation that provided the PPP loans also provided a strong incentive for laid-off employees to turn down the PPP paycheck payments, she said.

Some of the employees who helped run the online program worked too many hours to qualify for the extra $600 in unemployment benefits, so she reimbursed them for the loss, Clouser said.

It might have been better for the U.S. to have followed the lead of some European nations that simply paid companies to keep their furloughed workers on payroll, she agreed.

While the downtime has been stressful, it has allowed the staff to develop procedures for reopening, based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Clouser said.

Surfaces are being cleaned three times a day, during what would normally be prep or nap times, with a focus on frequently touched surfaces, Clouser said.

Children are being screened upon arrival, with questions asked of parents about fever and coughing, Clouser said.

Staffers are meeting parents outside, and bringing in or taking out the kids themselves, during the busy times, to minimize inside congestion, she said.

Sign-ups are online, so parents don’t need to come inside and touch paper and pens.

Staffers wear masks, as do older children “where feasible,” — although kids up to the age of 2 do not, to avoid the risk of suffocation, Clouser said.

The mask-wearing is “an educational process” for the younger ones permitted to wear them, and it’s dependent on “where they are developmentally” and how individually tolerant they are, she said.

The kids are there for 10 hours, “and you don’t want a 10-hour day of stress,” she said.

The education includes encouragement about hygienic matters like covering coughs and washing hands, she added.

Children are kept in the same groups all day, as much as possible, to minimize mixing.

But there’s no physical distancing of staffers from kids in groups, she said.

“They still need care and comfort and rocking,” she stated.

As an antidote to the risk that such close contact may create, staffers wear long-sleeved smocks they can replace when appropriate, she said.

When the shutdown occurred, which was at the same time the schools closed, staffers worried about the prospect of reopening safely, Clouser said.

But apart from a couple staffers who have heightened physical risk, they seem comfortable now, she indicated.

The center’s reopening is occurring gradually, with about 30 children in attendance so far, compared to the normal 135 or so, Clouser said.

The smaller number is “much easier to manage,” she said.

Despite the financial difficulties, and the probable need to pay back the PPP funding, the company “should be fine,” as attendance increases over the next month or two, with businesses reopening, Clouser said.

While some staffers might elect to stay on unemployment after being called back to work, there probably won’t be many, she predicted.

“I think the vast majority are excited to come back to see the children and each other,” she said.

Child care funding shares:

Blair, $351,700

Centre, $502,800

Cambria, $369,200

Clearfield, $304,000

Bedford, $206,200

Huntingdon, $203,600

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