Menlo Park preschool and child care centers have taken a hit since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with many forced to close for regulatory or financial reasons. Now, as San Mateo County's shelter-in-place order loosens, the remaining preschools and child care centers are adapting to a new normal.
This was the message coming from a recent online panel discussion titled "COVID-19's Impact On Menlo Park and the Region's Childcare Resources," led by Menlo Park City Councilman Ray Mueller and featuring four local experts.
Dayna Chung, the executive director of Community Equity Collaborative, and Build Up San Mateo Director Christine Padilla spoke broadly about a lack of economic support and facilities for child care resources — made worse since the beginning of the shelter in place in mid-March.
"Inequities that were systemic in nature long before the crisis are simply being amplified," Chung said. "Because of the fact that we have not supported early childhood education collectively, as we should, it has had a huge impact on families. Three-quarters of mothers and even half of fathers have had to either leave the workforce or switch to a less demanding job in order to care for their children — and that was before COVID."
Padilla said that Build Up San Mateo is an initiative that advocates for more child care resources in the county. Before the pandemic, there was already a gap in providing child care due largely to a lack of facilities, and now many more have closed.
"We had so many sites that had to close, either because of mandates or because of difficult decisions they had to make for themselves," Padilla said. "Our huge concern now is will they be able to reopen?"
During the shelter in place, about 1 in 5 child care providers in California had suspended operations by May 1, according to data from the Department of Social Services.
Out of Menlo Park's 58 licensed child care providers, only six have remained open during the shelter in place, according to Toddle Preschool owner Heather Hopkins, who spoke during the discussion.
Cleaner, leaner child care
With the county's shelter-in-place order loosening, some child care centers and preschools are reopening — but with a much different look. Face masks for teachers, temperature checks at the door, and constant vigilance in disinfecting the facilities are becoming the norm.
HeadsUp Child Development Center owner Chuck Bernstein, who also spoke during the discussion, said that children step on sanitary mats sprayed with Lysol in order to disinfect their shoes as they enter one of their facilities. The center has locations in Palo Alto, Pleasanton and San Jose.
In order to reduce contact, when parents drop kids off at a HeadsUp facility, parents no longer enter the building. Instead, parents drop kids at the front and teachers guide them inside.
There are also fewer children. Many parents have chosen not to take the risk of returning their kids to child care, and HeadsUp only has 60% of their normal enrollment, Bernstein said.
Bernstein and Hopkins both said that any staff or children who have symptoms that would suggest COVID-19 infection are asked to stay home.
Many preschools and child cares have also tried to work around the virus by offering online learning — with limited success.
Bernstein said that kids at his facilities have enjoyed small moments of online learning, such as an art show done through video chat, but that longer and deeper learning is a challenge. "I think there are some good parts to it, but talking about several hours a day, I think that's problematic," he said.
Hopkins agreed. "Two- and 3-year-olds, their ability to focus on anything, especially on a screen, is limited," she said.
But Bernstein and Hopkins both noted that during an online learning session, parents at home get to participate in ways that they wouldn't have before. "That's a great silver lining," Hopkins said. "That parents can see the work of early childhood educators, and how valuable they are, as opposed to just dropping the kids off and going on their way."