Utah child care centers develop new summer routines during COVID-19 to stay open for families

A little boy jumped out of a car in front of the Jewish Community Center and showed off his new superhero mask.

“Do you like it?” he asked Karla Pardini, director of programming at JCC’s Early Childhood Center in Salt Lake City.

“I love it,” she replied, smiling. Pardini took his temperature and told him he was free to go inside.

Masks are just the latest change Utah child care providers have implemented to stay open during the coronavirus pandemic. They’ve developed rigorous cleaning and sanitizing routines, and procedures to monitor children for symptoms of the virus. Providers have limited groups indoors to 20 children and 50 people outside to comply with state licensing guidelines.

“First we just thought, ‘How will we ever do this? This is just not the way you run school or camp,’” Pardini said. It wasn’t easy, but JCC staffers have found ways to adapt and still provide a “very enriching experience for kids.”

In early July, 12% of licensed centers and 7% of licensed home providers in Utah remained closed. That’s down from the “peak” around April 10, when “things were not looking good” and almost 40% of licensed centers were closed, according to Tracy Gruber, director of the state’s Office of Child Care.

While many families are returning to child care this summer, when the school year would normally have ended, some providers “can’t meet the full demand because of protocols in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Gruber said. But there are still resources available to help parents during this time.

“The child care sector is not unlike the other sectors of the economy, where there are going to be ebbs and flows of operations ... while the virus continues to be in our communities,” Gruber said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ben Euler, 7 has his temperature checked by Bella Fisher before he enters the Jewish Community Center on Thursday, July 2, 2020.

Enrollment dips

Devlins Child Development Center in Salt Lake City temporarily closed in April and part of May so that staffers could make adjustments to meet state licensing and health guidelines, said Larayne Bruce, the director at the facility. Since the center opened in 1965, it has had an open space where Bruce could easily check in on classes. But this spring, the center added walls to divvy up spaces and limit group sizes in each room.

The center also closed because it saw decreased enrollment when schools shut down and children stayed home with their parents. Even in late June, it was still experiencing a dip, Bruce said. Usually, the center averages about 95 kids per day, but lately it’s hovering closer to 45.

“It’s been a huge hit,” she said.

Bruce said this continued lag is due to Utah’s recent spike in COVID-19 cases. Newly reported cases have not been below 200 per day since late May, and they have remained above more than 300 per day for more than two weeks. Health officials previously warned that if the number of new cases was higher than that by July 1, the state could require a “complete shutdown” to control the virus.

One employee tested positive for COVID-19 at the Jewish Community Center a week after staffers made the decision to close the center in mid-March, according to Pardini. That case is the only one associated with the center, she said.

There have been 13 COVID-19 outbreaks at child care facilities in Utah, resulting in 61 cases, according to data from the Department of Health on Thursday. These outbreaks — defined by the department as two or more cases associated with a setting outside a household within 14 days — have not been linked with any hospitalizations or deaths, and the median age is 21.

Some employees did not come back to the JCC because they were worried about the virus, Pardini said, but the center did not have to lay off anyone, thanks to a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

Gruber predicts that when the extra $600 unemployment insurance benefit ends after July, “there’s going to be a lot of people searching for jobs.” It’s important that families know “there is available child care throughout the state to serve their children in regulated programs that are implementing those protocols to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” she said.

Utahns can find providers near them at careaboutchildcare.utah.gov. The Office of Child Care offers a summer grant to support programs serving school-age children. And crisis nurseries are available for parents who need a break, Gruber said. Locations can be found by visiting dcfs.utah.gov/interactive-location-map/ and searching for “crisis nurseries.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bianca Allen visits with children as they wait for more classmates to arrive at the Jewish Community Center on Thursday, July 2, 2020.

Camp adjustments

About 450 campers usually spend their summers swimming, rock climbing and playing at the Jewish Community Center. Due to COVID-19, camp was canceled and replaced with Summer Child Care, an alternative summer camp that invites children from two age groups to play games, sing, walk outside and return to some normalcy.

Before the pandemic, the center expected about 365 children to attend their 10-week summer camps. Only 74 children are attending the first session of Summer Child Care, and 94 are registered for the second session. But those in attendance are being creative in adapting.

Kids are playing tag with pool noodles and walk around with Hula-Hoops to social distance. It isn’t a typical summer experience at the center, but Pardini said kids have found ways to make it “campy,” such as singing the “Guess I’ll Go Eat Worms” camp song to ensure they’re washing their hands for the full 20 seconds that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends.

“I’m just excited to be part of that for kids because I know how important it is for them to be together and to have that joy of being outside and going on walks,” she said. “Even if we’re not swimming yet and doing the fun things that we’re used to.”

Getting children to wear masks when they’re not eating, napping or playing outside has been a big adjustment, Bruce said. Gov. Gary Herbert signed off on a recent order requiring masks at businesses in Salt Lake and Summit counties.

“They don’t get it when they’re 2 years old,” she said. Sometimes kids have trouble looking down at their toys while wearing a mask, but staffers remind them why they need to wear them.

Bruce regularly updates clients at her center by email and through social media about the changes they’re making and how they’re complying with state guidelines. She and her team hope that their numbers will return closer to normal in the future, but they’re “taking it day by day.”

“It’s territory we’ve never been in,” she said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Children at the Jewish Community Center walk like mummies to help with social distancing as they take a nature walk on Thursday, July 2, 2020.