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How Manatee County childcare providers stayed open during COVID-19 crisis

WORDS: Bre Jones Mulock

PICTURES: Whitney Patton

Like a luminary shooting warm light through a grey winter sky, Kara Moates rises each day to comfort and guide. Not long after sunrise, she dives into a day chatting about theology and spiritual concepts with a man eager and grateful to share his thoughts about the world while she assesses his vitals. On the same day, she visits a woman in her 80s who lives alone and passes the time sewing colorful quilts, coin purses, and masks, while Moates manages the seamstress’ pain. 

As a nurse for Tidewell Hospice, Moates dons a caring cloak of armor as she organizes pillboxes, educates, and lends an ear while treating a host of symptoms ranging from nausea and vomiting to hallucinations and anxiety.

She is an essential worker. She’s also a mom to 16-month-old Ellanora and depends on Happy Cubs, a childcare center in Bradenton, to juggle her superhero role of working parent.

But as COVID-19 blew a toxic plume of uncertainty across the country and a shadow of fear loomed above Manatee County, essential workers with young children collectively held their breath and watched in disbelief as childcare centers shuttered one-by-one like a row of falling dominoes., as well as Manatee County schools and a spectrum of small businesses, closed their doors, trying to navigate what seemed like a cruel funhouse maze through a global pandemic.

While many businesses strategized innovative working conditions under stay-at-home orders, essential workers like Moates formed a fabric of individuals who sustained the needs of our country and had to report to work. Despite childcare facilities falling into a vital business category, 50 percent of the state’s private childcare providers placed Closed Signs in their windows by mid-April. According to the Florida Department of Education, it left essential workers pondering the same question: Who will care for my children while I’m at work?

“What I was super nervous about was that Happy Cubs would have to close because a lot of daycare centers had to close,” said Moate, who has cared for a COVID-19 patient. “I could not imagine working and running around with a toddler trying to continue to facilitate her growth and development and who would watch her. My job is already emotionally stressful and I’m adjusting to new COVID-19 protocols. Losing childcare would have been completely overwhelming.”

Buttressed with state and local emergency funding, genius and creative community ideas, and grassroots teamwork, many Manatee County childcare providers, rose like illuminated, protective lighthouses guiding ships on a dark and foggy night. Braving the tempest, they boosted safety measures, offered transparent communication, and took in older siblings of students. They worked long, draining hours to keep the community’s first responders, doctors, nurses, grocery store clerks, and many more essential professionals at work. 

Like stagehands hustling behind the scenes of a complicated, high-tech production, childcare providers emerged as unsung heroes. They propelled Manatee County into one of the best performing areas of our state, with only 12 of the 171 providers licensed with the Early Learning Coalition of Manatee County closing long term due to coronavirus concerns.

And concerns ran deep. As many parents fearfully pulled their children from childcare enrollment plummeted, and the providers struggled to stay afloat. The Office of Early Learning recognized a dire need to provide free or reduced rates for childcare as the statewide emergency sirens wailed.

“Our first responders and health care professionals are on the front lines fighting COVID-19,” said Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran. “These individuals are critical to providing medical care to those affected by the virus and finding childcare for their own children while performing these life-saving jobs allows them to continue serving the public. The Department of Education is committed to doing everything it can to help first responders and health care professionals find quality childcare services while school campuses are closed.”

Locally, the Office of Early Learning awarded the ELC of Manatee County a $398,650 grant designed to support providers through the pandemic with health and safety supplies, infrastructure needs, and staff professional development. At the same time, they remained open or worked to re-open to serve essential workers.

“We are grateful to the Office of Early Learning for helping us support our Manatee County early care programs that have stood with us to serve children of our essential workers,” said Paul Sharff, Chief Executive Officer for the ELC of Manatee County.

In addition, the Boys and Girls Club of Manatee County connected essential health care workers and first responders with free childcare, thanks to the support from United Way Suncoast and the Manatee Community Foundation.

As emergency funding funneled down from the state, the stage was set, and childcare providers then faced the challenge to take action.

Happy Cubs

Against a backdrop of twinkling early morning stars, Annette Larkin – the owner of Happy Cubs– arrives each day to a stream of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers who flow through the doors starting at 6 a.m. 

A five-star rated childcare program across from Blake Medical Center, Happy Cubs, first opened its doors 38 years ago as a childcare resource for hospital employees to enroll their children. With the pandemic surging through the county, Larkin realized it was more important than ever to stay open, with 90 percent of her families already consisting of hospital employees or health care professionals.

“I sat down with my teachers and staff who are absolutely incredible, and we talked about my biggest fear, which was an exposure [to the coronavirus] here and how we could minimize that,” Larkin said. “We are already diligent with handwashing and cleaning, and many parents trusted that. We implemented changes like no longer allowing sleep items or parents inside the center.”

Working extended hours and fighting exhaustion, Larkin opened up a flowing river of communication daily with her parents through COVID-19 update texts to create absolute transparency.

“She was a super communicator with texts or phone calls daily,” said Moates, whose husband is a high school teacher. “It didn’t matter if it was in the evening or on the weekend. I always knew what was going on.”

Rolling into her driveway at night, Larkin would often cradle her face in her hands and let the tears flow as she and her staff worked harder than ever to keep kids safe and continue to create a calm environment while panic raged. Larkin believes the ELC of Manatee County bridged the main lifeline for childcare centers.

“I don’t think that daycares could have stayed open without the support from the ELC,” said Larkin with a waffle of emotion rattling in her voice. “They are the real superheroes here. They 1000 percent went above and beyond, staying ahead of the game and the ball. They called or e-mailed – reached out- every single day asking what we needed and how they could help. It was extraordinary.”

In addition to grants and communication, Larkin revealed the ELC brainstormed genius ideas to keep childcare centers safe and open. When cleaning products vanished from shelves, the ELC purchased chlorine from pool supply companies, conversed with the Florida Department of Health, and created sanitizing solutions mixed in gallon jugs donated by Dakin Dairy for childcare centers to use.

“The whole community has been phenomenal,” Larkin said. “People have donated supplies, and food companies have donated meals to feed every shift at the hospital. The community really stepped up for essential workers and for us.”

In the midst of Manatee County Public Schools transitioning to online learning, Larkin’s phone buzzed with parents anxious to know if she would take in their older children who had nowhere to go. Larkin snapped into action, and on a moment’s notice, she made room for 12 older kids trying to complete the third, fourth, and fifth grades. She not only purchased tablets so they could continue their education through Schoology but also designed a curriculum to support them.

“This age group is not my wheelhouse and sifting through Schoology was a tough, tough go, but I didn’t want them to then just be on their phones the rest of the day. We limited screen time and came up with ideas to engage them. I get a lump in my throat thinking about the grateful responses from parents.”

The gratefulness reflected back to the community, too. Clad in Batman, Superwoman, Hulk, doctor, nurse, and firefighter costumes, a colorful parade of miniature superheroes marched from Happy Cubs across to a grassy patch outside of Blake Medical Center. Clutching posters shouting thank-you’s, the 3, 4 and 5-year-olds cheered for health care workers streaming in and out of the hospital, moving many to tears.

“The doctors and nurses were really touched, and I thought it was important for the kids to support them,” said Larkin.

While scary virus statistics blared from many living room TVs, Larkin felt compelled to create an environment and routine as normal as possible for her students. Sitting, they can inadvertently absorb the stress swirling around them. The center continued with a dose of fun like silly hair and bike days. Standing in the pouring rain, her staff hooted, hollered, banged pots and pans, and waved signs as a car parade of her graduating VPK class snaked through the parking lot.

“I was not going to let this graduating class move on without a graduation,” said Larkin. “They had caps and gowns, and we moved their tassels.”

A Child’s Galaxy

Preserving consistency and protecting childhood fun and growth, poured from the staff of A Child’s Galaxy, a Bradenton childcare center that normally hovers around 50-60 students and never dropped below 20 during the early weeks of the coronavirus scares.  

“I have an amazing staff that worked extra hard cleaning and waiting to see how parents would react,” said Kristen Terrell, who opened A Child’s Galaxy just over 16 years ago. “I think our families realized they could rely on us, and the bottom line is they had to go to work, and we were going to make it safe and still fun here.”

Backed with a $2,000 grant from the ELC, Terrell purchased two no-touch thermometers, replaced napping mats with cots, and bought all new sheets for each child.

“These were huge changes for us, and we were really excited,” said Terrell. “I could not have done this without the ELC or my amazing staff. They are like my other family – they are my rock.”

While some childcare providers kept their doors open for a variety of health care professionals, A Child’s Galaxy families shine as another important segment of essential workers: Grocery store clerks, Dollar General Managers, service industry personal and a variety of other jobs that endured a painful siphon to their paychecks. 

“A great deal of our parents are essential workers in the middle to lower-income jobs who need to go to work and feel like they are dropping off their child in a safe environment,” said Terrell. 

Terrell often gifted leftover food they had supplied from the state to families in need.

From toddler tunes to upbeat 60s rock, music ripples through A Child’s Galaxy most days where kids explore cooking projects like dipping pretzels in chocolate and covering them with sprinkles or comparing and contrasting three flavors of Gatorade. They dress up for Dr. Seuss week, and show-off new do’s for crazy hair day.

“Keeping kids in a routine and keeping it fun is a big deal,” said Sharon Greer, director at A Child’s Galaxy. “For many, there is already a lot of anxiety going on at home, and parents are stressed. Dress up days get parents involved in their kid’s education, too.”

One of the biggest gifts Greer said she could give her parents was news the ELC was waiving parent co-pay fees for those who were not able to work or took a cut in pay due to work closures.

“You could not even imagine the surprise on parents’ faces when I told them they had credit in their account,” said Greer as her voice rose with triumphant cheer. “They were overwhelmed with gratitude.”

Children’s Nest of Manatee

Gratitude did not only glow among families of essential workers. It swelled like an uplifting tidal wave through the childcare centers – small businesses themselves who may have sunk below the depths of the pandemic rip current without help.

Under the new benefits, the ELC reimbursed VPK and SR providers for additional absences of active enrollees or temporary closures due to COVID-19. The additional funding helped ensure that childcare providers could financially support their day-to-day operations, including paying teachers and staff regardless of their decision to remain open or not during the health crisis.

“ELC stepped up in a big way, and this was a huge help,” said Mariela Johnston, who has operated Children’s Nest out of Church of the Cross for the last seven years. “If a child who is subsidized through the ELC is absent more than three days, the funding stops. In this case, the ELC said they would continue to pay.”

As a small, family-centered childcare facility, usually hovers around 60 kids. By mid-March, Johnston said her enrollment fell to about 50 while she navigated changes such as reducing the number of toys out for children to handle and increasing the classrooms’ cleaning frequency. She said her solid staff and open lines of communications helped her survive.

“We are family-oriented and very close,” said Johnston. “They all have my cell phone and can reach out at any time.”

Wading through the pandemic’s initial flood, tested Johnston’s foundation, but she stood strong for her students.

“I’m a level-headed person and did not want the kids to see the stress,” said Johnston, whose curriculum focuses on inquiry and a drive to fill students with knowledge, skills, and values. “The hardest, most stressful times have been when kids are being tested for the virus. While all negative, we have had five kids go through testing.”

With initial reduced enrollment, Johnston had to improvise with a mixed range of ages per classroom, which sparked learning challenges. Now she has classrooms defined again and attention spotlighting back on learning.

“I’m trying to keep it as normal as possible and as honest as possible,” Johnston said. “Kids are taking in more than we know.”

Grandmother to 4-year-old Skylar, Jean Johnson, is grateful every day the preschool has continued to craft a safe environment, allowing the kids to grow socially and academically during the pandemic.

“Ms. Johnston and her staff have been totally awesome and taken absolutely every precaution and measure to make me feel comfortable dropping off my granddaughter,” Johnson said. 

Community Strong

Standing outside of her car in the 90-degree Florida summer heat, Moates suits up in the proper PPE to protect her patients from potential coronavirus germs lurking in the wings. A one-hour visit with a patient may turn into three hours as she runs through a checklist of new protocols. 

Her mind wanders to protecting her family and Ellanora, who loves puzzles and blueberries and affectionately carries around a baby doll at childcare. But her drive and passion for helping others keeps her laser focused.

“I hold strong to the theory that you come into the world one way, and you go out of the world one way,” said Moates, who has also worked as a labor and delivery nurse. “My job as a hospice nurse is to help make that journey as you want it to be, comfortable and respectful. I also want the family to feel just as supported as the patient and know we are there for them too.”

Moates doesn’t hesitate to share the community uniting together has allowed her to continue passionately helping others. “I could not do my job without childcare,” said Moates. “I am so grateful Happy Cubs continued to stay open.”

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