As Utah starts to reopen, child care providers in the state continue to find ways to adapt during the coronavirus pandemic.

Missy Monsivais installed walls and doors to separate classrooms at Imagination Time Childcare and Preschool in Marriott-Slaterville to comply with state guidelines limiting group sizes. She also moved her check-in station for parents to an outside shed, decorated with flowers and a sign, to limit the number of people who come inside the building.

Monsivais, owner and director of Imagination Time, worried in late March she might have to close after she saw a dramatic decrease in the number of children coming to her center. She also lost staffers worried for their safety as social distancing guidelines were put in place throughout Utah to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Now, in early May, it’s “actually been a lot better,” she said. She’s received emergency federal relief funding, which has been a “lifesaver,” and she’s seeing more kids return each week.

“We’re slowly picking back up,” Monsivais said.

In mid-April, 38% of licensed centers and 18% of family child care providers had closed in Utah. As of last week, “we have a quarter of our centers closed and only 10% of our family providers closed,” said Tracy Gruber, director of Utah’s Office of Child Care.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Imagination Time Childcare and Preschool in Marriott-Slaterville has installed walls and doors to separate classrooms during COVID-19. Tuesday, May 12, 2020.

There are also 36 exclusive sites across the state serving children of essential employees through the temporary One Utah Child Care System.

When Gov. Gary Herbert moved Utah from the “red” — high level — risk to “orange” on May 1, reopening some businesses, the Utah Department of Health updated emergency guidelines for child care programs in the state. The biggest change, Gruber said, was that maximum group sizes were raised from 10 to 20 people.

To have more than 20 people in a facility, the provider must have “a separate room with full, solid walls that are higher than 6 feet” to keep groups apart, according to the guidelines.

“It may require some of our providers to adjust their physical spaces, to divide some rooms,” she said.

On Thursday, Herbert moved most of Utah from the moderate “orange” risk level to a lower “yellow” level status, allowing people to gather in groups of up to 50. No changes had been announced related to child care providers as of Thursday afternoon.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chelsie Stain serves lunch to children at Imagination Time Childcare and Preschool in Marriott-Slaterville on Tuesday, May 12, 2020.

Providers are required to screen children and staff for a fever and COVID-19 symptoms before they enter. They also “must ensure that surfaces, items, and areas that are used and touched often are cleaned and sanitized at least daily and before a new group uses the room.”

Utah’s Care About Child Care network has been contacting providers weekly to make sure they have the supplies they need and connect them with resources, Gruber said.

To keep struggling programs open, the Utah Child Care Operations Grant was rolled out in mid-April to help pay for “rent, utilities, supplies and payroll, as well as additional health and safety requirements imposed during the pandemic.” As of early May, 188 centers and 274 family child care providers had applied for grants, according to Gruber.

Last week, $4.9 million began to be distributed. Gruber estimates they’ll spend between $5 million and $7 million a month on providers over the next few months.

Monsivais and Ed Dieringer, co-owner of the Bennion Learning Center in Taylorsville, both applied for and received money through the grant program, which is funded through the federal CARES Act.

“It means a lot. We simply couldn’t even keep our doors open at the level that we have without that funding,” said Dieringer, who also has seen a large decrease in the number of children coming to his center.

While Monsivais and Dieringer, who run facilities that can accommodate about 100 children, said they found the grant process fairly easy, some smaller home-based programs have struggled with the process. The Salt Lake Tribune received comments from a handful of these family providers, who asked for anonymity out of fear of reprisal since the state oversees their licensing.

A couple of providers said they had withdrawn or considered withdrawing their grant applications because they became “frustrated” and found the process “pretty invasive.” They described having to submit multiple forms of documentation and a hesitancy to provide information since some used personal bank accounts, rather than separate business accounts, to run their programs.

Providers said they were confused about whether they qualified for the grant and had experienced the “significant loss of income” the grant was meant to remedy. “When you are licensed for eight children," one person said, “losing one child can be significant.”

Another was overwhelmed by the “lawyer jargon” in the 12-page application, adding, “It feels like I’m signing my life away, like on a car/house loan.”

“We do understand that the Operations Grant has been a bit of a challenge for these providers because of the requirements to have liability insurance and demonstrate that tuition deposits were made," Gruber said. “Family child care providers have a different business practice and a different model than child care centers do.”

Gruber said the state “tried to make the requirements as easy as possible to get the funding to the programs that were facing reduced enrollments as quickly as possible.” Her office is “trying to work with family child care providers to get their applications in and get the money out to them," she said.

At the same time, she added, “we have to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, which requires accountability."

Utah was already struggling to meet families’ child care needs before the coronavirus pandemic. As the state starts to reopen, “child care is a critical piece of Utah’s economic infrastructure,” Gruber said, “and families need safe places for their children to go as they return to work.”

People who are not considered essential employees under the One Utah Child Care System but need help offsetting the cost of child care can contact the Department of Workforce Services, Gruber said. And families who need help finding child care can visit careaboutchildcare.utah.gov.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Parents use a check-in station outside Imagination Time Childcare and Preschool in Marriott-Slaterville to limit how many people enter the facility during COVID-19. Tuesday, May 12, 2020.