‘What Do You Do?’: Parents Are Preparing To Return To Work, But Day Cares Can’t Fully Open

Working from home mom Kate Zinsser
Oak Park mom Kate Zinsser makes a fruit salad for lunch with her 5-year-old son, Graeson. Provided by Kate Zinsser
Working from home mom Kate Zinsser
Oak Park mom Kate Zinsser makes a fruit salad for lunch with her 5-year-old son, Graeson. Provided by Kate Zinsser

‘What Do You Do?’: Parents Are Preparing To Return To Work, But Day Cares Can’t Fully Open

It’s day 49 of working from home for Oak Park mom Kate Zinsser. Every day is a challenge, not only managing online meetings, but managing her two children.

“We’re constantly trying to find passwords and logging into things and trying to make sure that the kids are set up in the right rooms and that no one’s licking the tablet — all that kind of stuff,” Zinsser said.

Some of the folks who’ve gotten the most creative during the pandemic are parents like Zinsser or west suburban mom Laura Fallsgraff.

“[My daughter] pulls my headphones out when I’m on calls,” Fallsgraff recalled. “She’ll start typing on my computer and climb in my lap if I’m on a Zoom call. So I’ve pretty much given up trying to work anywhere where she can see me.”

But for Fallsgraff and others, whose children were in school or day care settings before the pandemic, the resilience is wearing thin. These parents want specifics on when and how they’ll be able to send their kids back to day care, and they say they’re not getting that clarity from Illinois officials.

In a chart released by the state that outlines Illinois’ five-phase plan to reopen, day cares have been operating on an emergency basis, open only for essential workers and in much smaller classes. They aren’t listed as one of the businesses that can fully reopen until Phase 4 — the state is currently in Phase 2 — even though workers like barbers and retailers can open sooner.

Opponents of that plan, including many parents, are questioning that timing.

“People can’t get back to work if they don’t have care for their children,” said Sarah Stoliker, who runs a day care in south suburban Illinois and the Illinois Directors/Owners of Childcare Centers association. “Children come first.”

Add to that some confusion on the plan itself. While the abbreviated chart the state released doesn’t mention day cares in Phase 3, another portion of the plan mentions “limited” opening of day cares in that phase, pending “safety” guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health: “Education and child care: Remote learning in P-12 schools and higher education; Limited child care and summer programs open with IDPH approved safety guidance.”

But those limits and guidelines are still in the works. The state has convened a task force to develop them. They’re looking at concerns about how parents can safely drop their kids off, how many kids can be in a day care at one time and even how to sanitize pens as parents sign their kids in, according to some members who talked with WBEZ.

“We’re talking about toddlers, preschoolers, and we know very little about this disease, we’re learning more every day,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children and a member of the state task force. “And so given the uncertainty of the virus, we think that it really is important to be careful.”

Decarla Burton, another member of the task force who runs a home day care in Chicago, said she, like Stoliker, was eager to reopen — not only to help out other families, but to sustain her business.

But since joining the task force, she said her perspective has changed.

“Now that I’ve had the opportunity to go behind the scenes and see exactly what it takes to reopen safely, [I think] we must step back and really look to make sure that we have our policies in place.”

But Stoliker said parents and day cares can’t wait. She said even a plan for limited opening in Phase 3 isn’t enough — day cares need to be able to operate at full capacity sooner, and parents need more clarity from the state so they can start making decisions now.

“I just talked to a mom. She’s a dental hygienist and her dental office said, ’Next week, we’re calling all you guys back.’ She’s got four kids,” Stoliker said. “Like what do you do? That is the type of stuff that we’re having to respond to really quickly. … I’ve got to be able to take her in on a dime and be ready.”

State officials said Tuesday they will provide more information on its plan to reopen day cares in the coming days.

Mariah Woelfel is a reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her @MariahWoelfel.