Giving Thought: Childcare providers reopen in unpredictable environment

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

From a near-complete shutdown in the spring, child care centers and preschools from Aspen to Parachute are now reopening, but capacity and availability of spaces vary widely from town to town.

And there’s no telling what shoe might drop tomorrow.

Back in March and April, when the pandemic was relatively new, a few child care centers remained open at a reduced capacity for the children of essential workers. Now, as more parents go back to work, their young children are returning to the classrooms and playgrounds they attended before COVID-19. This is a great relief for working parents who depend on quality child care. It’s also a big deal for the early childhood educators and providers, who are glad to be back at work with kids again.

“It’s so joyous to have them back,” said Shirley Ritter, director of Kids First, a department of the city of Aspen that supports child care services and providers.

Ritter was pleased to report that 14 child care providers are open in the upper Roaring Fork Valley, serving as many as 400 children on a normal day.

Aspen’s early childhood providers are uniquely positioned for a quick recovery from the pandemic’s economic effects because Kids First is supported by a city housing and child care tax. That money, along with emergency relief funds allocated recently by the Aspen City Council, enabled subsidies for child care providers who have opened up over the past couple of months with lower-than-usual enrollments.

“That was really important for people across the community to recognize that pretty much nobody is going back to work until there’s child care,” Ritter said.

Opening during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis is costly and complicated. The needs for cleaning supplies, face masks, social distancing and health checks at the door have changed the way child care providers do their jobs. Spending time outdoors, where distance is easier to come by, Ritter says, has been “a lifesaver” for many programs.

Child care providers outside of Aspen share all of these challenges and more, because most local governments between Basalt and Rifle don’t have a revenue stream devoted to child care and cannot provide any public subsidies. The public-health rules also vary in different towns and counties, making for a mixed picture.

Joni Goodwin, executive director of the Early Childhood Network in Glenwood Springs, says 40 licensed providers and 20 informal “family, friend and neighbor” providers are now open, serving roughly 550 children. That’s not equal to the pre-COVID capacity of about 750 children, but it’s not a bad start, either.

“Our centers are opening back up, but the family providers are different,” Goodwin explained. “Some are taking a decreased number of children, some are not opening at all. Some of them have their own children at home now because, for example, the summer camps aren’t open.”

There are other factors too. In Rifle, Goodwin says, many parents simply haven’t gone back to work yet and don’t have money to spend on child care. Other parents are not ready to send their kids to child care or anyplace else, for health reasons — which brings up another tricky aspect of this stage of the pandemic.

The lack of child care spaces from Basalt to Parachute has been a problem for years, but today a new scramble for those spaces is occurring. Said Goodwin, “if you’re a child care provider and you’re reopening at half capacity, which of your families are allowed to come back?”

If you’re a parent who doesn’t want to send your child to preschool at the moment, do you still have to pay to keep that cherished spot? Early childhood providers everywhere are wrestling with this problem, but the solutions are hard to identify when nobody can predict the future.

It seems all of us nowadays are in a constant state of improvisation as the status of the virus, the public health rules, the economy and the reopening process continually change. “We don’t know what next week is going to look like,” Goodwin said. “We don’t even know if the schools are opening in the fall.”

Who could have imagined that statement in January of this year?

In the meantime, however, we’re thankful that many of our child care professionals are back to work, supporting our working families and nurturing our children.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.


Gear Review: Great fall mountain wear

Just before the snow and frigid temperatures hit, I love wearing fall clothing and boots. And, these items can get you through the deep winter, as well.  

See more