The return to normal marches on, leaving behind the exhausted caretakers of young kids

With no vaccine and cases rising again, parents and the child care centers that support them are navigating another confusing COVID moment on their own.

Day care center holding hands
Day care employees motion for cars to halt as they walk across a North Side street. With no vaccine yet available for children under 5, child care center owners are feeling stressed. Chicago Sun-Times
Day care center holding hands
Day care employees motion for cars to halt as they walk across a North Side street. With no vaccine yet available for children under 5, child care center owners are feeling stressed. Chicago Sun-Times

The return to normal marches on, leaving behind the exhausted caretakers of young kids

With no vaccine and cases rising again, parents and the child care centers that support them are navigating another confusing COVID moment on their own.

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Joe Klonowski spent five days stuck in his basement under COVID-19 quarantine.

The 30-year-old Hyde Park software engineer and manager said he felt heartbroken to miss seeing the tiny fascinating changes in his 3-week-old infant son’s daily development. He despised having to wall himself behind the baby gate when his 21-month-old daughter spied him in a hallway. And he dreaded knowing this quarantine likely won’t be his last.

The rules at his daughter’s day care require a five-day quarantine for her class every time a staff member or another child tests positive. That has added up to a lot of quarantines.

“The day care doesn’t do ‘test-to-stay’ for her age” — that is, a type of testing protocol that allows children who test negative for COVID to stay in school — “and there are no vaccines for her age, so literally the only option is for her to stay home for a week every time she gets exposed. And she gets exposed all the time,” Klonowski said, adding that his daughter likely spent more time in quarantine than at day care during the first few months of the year. “People who don’t have kids literally don’t believe me when I tell them this.”

parent holding kids
With his wife, Joe Klonowski is managing two children, multiple child care quarantines and work. Courtesy of Joe Klonowski
Return-to-work office mandates. Shifting day care rules. The still-delayed arrival of a vaccine for children under 5. Parents of young children are stressed — and so are the child care centers that provide an essential service for them.

As companies lure workers back to the office, families of young children say they feel stuck in crisis mode. A constant cycle of illness followed by quarantines is messing up work schedules, leaving parents frayed and exhausted.

And there’s another onerous trickle-down effect: The owners of child care centers say that when parents pull children out, the decline in enrollment, coupled with inflation and rising costs, forces them to cut hours and increase tuition. This is putting pressure on a fragile system already suffering from a labor shortage. The lack of reliable COVID data — a byproduct of a surge in at-home testing — has left everyone guessing what’s next.

The view from the child care center

Peg Dunne Pavelec runs Little Inspirations in Hyde Park, the child care center where Joe Klonowski and his wife, Emily Kleeman, send their daughter. Keeping afloat during the pandemic has meant navigating a tangle of logistical details.

Since the state lifted its emergency orders, it’s been largely up to individual day cares to set rules for masks, quarantines and testing children. (Illinois requires staff at licensed day care centers to be vaccinated against COVID or undergo weekly testing.)

At Little Inspirations, everyone ages 2 and older, including the staff, wears masks. Children ages 3 to 6 and the staff take saliva tests once a week. Results usually come back from those tests within 24 hours.

The testing provider won’t test children younger than 3, and it’s “really difficult for the young children to produce saliva and put it into a testing tube,” said Pavelec, a Palos Park native who started Little Inspirations 14 years ago after earning a master’s degree in educational leadership from Teachers College at Columbia University in New York. “Many of our 3-year-olds often are not successful with this practice.”

As for quarantines, Pavelec has had to interpret several rounds of guidance set by the city and state health departments, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which licenses child care centers across the state. She said closures recently have been due to children testing positive, not generally the adults who work in the center. “Since all of our staff is vaccinated and wearing masks, positive cases among staff are very infrequent.”

When policies change, Pavelec said, she often will survey parents as she figures out implementation of new rules. After the state adopted federal guidance that made masks optional in schools and day care settings, for example, she asked parents whether the center should continue to require masks, and to what extent. Indoors only? Only if community levels of transmission go up? Only if children are symptomatic? “We tried to go deep to get the best feel for our community’s comfort levels with the changing mask recommendations,” she said.

At the Gads Hill Center, which operates three early-education centers in North Lawndale, Brighton Park and Chicago Lawn and a K-12 after-school program in Pilsen, some rules are set by the federal government, since the centers rely primarily on federal and state funds that subsidize child care for low-income families.

For example, everyone ages 2 and over, including parents and staff, must wear masks inside the child development centers.

The centers still introduced a lot of their own safety precautions during the pandemic. They provided “indoor” shoes for the children so youngsters could leave street shoes at the door; required gowns, masks and other protective gear for infant caregivers; and built clear plastic partitions between desks and to separate children sitting at tables.

When it comes to classroom closures due to COVID exposures, closures have been less frequent, said CEO Maricela Garcia. At the height of the pandemic, there were monthly closures.

Now, one of the centers must close a classroom due to a COVID exposure about once every other month, she said.

“It’s been a struggle,” said Garcia.

At the same time, child care operators face the perennial problem of keeping workers — historically underpaid and quick to leave for a better job offer — from bolting.

That means some centers are raising wages, and boosting tuition to cover the rising labor costs.

Little Inspirations this week increased its tuition for parents who had children enrolled prior to January 2022. Before January, it hadn’t raised tuition since September 2019.

Tuition prior to the increases was roughly $1,700 monthly for preschool and $2,000 for infants. The 6 to 10% increase, which depends on a child’s age and length of daily stay, will go to support raises and cost-of-living adjustments for teachers and cover rising business costs due to inflation.

Teacher turnover is a big concern in the industry. “Being a teacher during COVID meant being an essential worker,” Pavelec said. “With the additional work, challenges and health risk of COVID, the need for increases in teachers’ wages only magnified.”

Gads Hill also recently increased pay, courtesy of a boost in its federal Head Start grant. “We struggle all the time to find qualified staff,” Garcia said. “The workforce shortage is real. And it reflects how little society values [the early education caregiver] function.”

Shauna Ejeh, senior vice president of programs at Illinois Action for Children, which administers the Cook County portion of a child care subsidy program for the Illinois Department of Human Services, said the age-old problem that underpins pre- and post-COVID struggles is a lack of investment in early care and education. Thin business margins have only gotten thinner.

She said Illinois’ $2 billion spending falls far short of the $14 billion that Gov. JB Pritzker’s Early Childhood Education and Care Funding Commission estimated is needed to ensure every child access to a quality early-learning experience.

Parents on the ropes

The emergency shutdowns that leave parents on pins and needles stem from another moving target — COVID data. That’s because official government data now miss an “invisible” COVID spike resulting from growing numbers of people using at-home COVID tests and failing to report the results.

A Hyde Park parent who asked to remain anonymous because she did not want her employer to know of her struggles said she and her husband work opposite shifts in health care, and they’re required to take vacation days if they stay home — unlike workers at Google, Twitter, Reddit and other employers who let their employees work remotely.

The family hires a helper to drop off and pick up their son at his day care, which has shortened its hours to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. unless parents pay more than the monthly rate.

“I panic about classroom shutdowns [due to COVID exposure] every other week,” the parent said. “It’s really stressful. I worry all the time that I’m going to have to leave work. I can’t hire someone to hang out with my kid who has been exposed to COVID.”

To care for their toddler and their infant twins, the family hires a night nanny because they cannot rely on their families and friends for emergency help.

Despite the difficulties, parents said they value their children’s ability to build their social and learning skills when they’ve been in-person in the classroom. Research shows that outcomes of enrollment in high-quality early learning programs range from higher rates of high school graduation to better earnings and health.

Maria Nunez receives state funding assistance that lets her pay $63 a week to send her 2-year-old son to Liz-Ney Land Learning Center at 61st and Pulaski. She said she’s been fortunate her son has not been sent home for quarantines.

The day care center has reported no COVID shutdowns in the 20 months that Maxilino has been enrolled, which Nunez credits to a labor-intensive testing approach. During peaks of the pandemic, the staff went out to families’ cars to test children and parents, with their permission, with both saliva and nasal-swab tests.

Yet Nunez didn’t escape COVID’s impact. Her son has had to take speech therapy — his therapist believes it resulted from his being unable to see others talk behind their masks — for the past year.

“It was hard at first,” she said. “But he’s doing great now.”

Sandra Guy is a freelance writer based in Chicago.