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COVID-19 daycares
PHOTO COURTESY PIXABAY The COVID-19 outbreak has led to challenges for child care, both for parents and for daycare providers.

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

The pandemic has led to challenges concerning the closure of day-care centers as parents and children remain at home and providers experience financial difficulties.

In March, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered that day-cares be closed unless they were caring exclusively for the children of essential workers.

For parents who have their children at home and may have experienced a pay cut or a job loss because of COVID-19, the monthly tuition that daycares charge may be difficult. Some families have opted to pull their children out of daycare, with the hope that a spot will be available when they are in a position to reopen.

The state has not yet given a timeline for when day-cares will be allowed to reopen. 

Families’ experiences

Child care is one of the largest expenses for a family.

According to a 2019 report from Child Care Aware of America, the average annual cost for in-center care for an infant in New Jersey is $15,600. For an infant and a 4-year-old, the combined cost would be $28,260.

By comparison, the average in-state tuition at a public university in New Jersey is $14,180, and the average annual mortgage payment is $28,776.

Laura Siligato’s younger daughter was attending day care part-time, two days a week, at Korporate Kids in Cedar Grove.

It was a good fit, and Siligato said her daughter loved taking classes like karate and yoga, offered as part of the program. The family was preparing to transfer her to a new preschool in the fall, since it focused more on academics.

Siligato works as a psychotherapist in Hoboken 25 hours a week, while her husband works full time in New York.

In March, the day-care was still open at the time Montclair schools closed. Because the Siligatos would be at home with their older daughter, it made more sense to pull their younger daughter out of daycare.

They continued to pay tuition in full: $450 a month for the part-time schedule. “At that point, we didn’t know how long, the assumption was a couple of weeks,” Siligato said.

But the family decided to disenroll their daughter completely as the lockdown continued. It didn’t make financial sense to continue paying, she said.

Initially, the day-care continued to charge full fees, and then scaled back to 75 percent. Families who were experiencing financial difficulties were asked to speak individually to the center directors to determine an arrangement.

But Siligato said parents could end up losing their places if they didn’t pay. “It’s hard to hear that you could potentially lose your spot,” she said, adding that daycare is hard to find.

Some of the business aspects were a little difficult to comprehend, she said: “It’s tough to make a business out of taking care of children.”

Parents also have questions about whether day-cares will be safe, and what other child-care options may be available. “We’re kind of holding our breaths over the next few months,” Siligato said.

Beth Pulawski’s young son was attending the Ben Samuels Children’s Center at Montclair State University. She said that payment and tuition are on hold until the center reopens, and that families’ places are being held.

Each week, families receive an email with a range of activities for math, science, art, and physical activity. There is also a Zoom class offered, but Pulawski said her son does not like to participate.

Ben Samuels’ monthly fees range from $895 to $1,095 for an infant, $855 to $1,755 for a toddler, and $1,065 to $1,585 for preschool-age children.

Pulawski said the day-cares attended by her friends’ children had all either stopped charging parents fees due to the closing, or were charging discounted or prorated fees.

By the numbers

Congress approved a $3.5 billion stimulus package for child-care centers in April, but Child Care Aware of America and the National Child Care Association, among other groups, said that much more was needed to help day-care centers survive.

For the providers themselves, there are also a lot of financial concerns. The National Child Care Association said that one out of three day-cares in the United States could be forced to permanently close because of financial burdens caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Although daycare employees can collect unemployment, daycares need to pay taxes and rent, which in Montclair equates to about $36 to $39 per square foot.

What centers are doing

The Neighborhood Child Care Center, as a facility that is providing care to the children of essential workers, is one of a few daycares in the Montclair area still open. The center typically has 85 children in attendance, but now is down to 24 on average, said director Avissa Beek-Peniston.

The center has rigorously increased its cleaning and sanitizing efforts, and staffers who work directly with children are encouraged to wear masks. There are also routine check-ins with staff to see how they are doing, both physically and emotionally.

Families who are working are welcome to continue paying the fees. But if families are unemployed, they do not have to.

“You won’t lose your slot,” Beek-Peniston said. “We do not want anybody to stress. This is already a stressful situation.”

The center is working through the payroll protection program to make sure all staffers get paid.

For families whose children are not attending in person, the center sends home regular emails about pickup and drop-off procedures and other needed information. The center puts together craft kits, with crayons, paper, and glue, that parents can request for pickup.

The center also provides Zoom classes for children. But the staff discovered that some care was needed for the Zoom classes: Young children at home would see their friends on the screen and get upset because they can’t go to school, Beek-Peniston said.

She said her staff was concerned about the new normal once day-cares begin opening back up. It is hard to get young children to understand the concept of social distancing, she said, and there are worries about whether families would feel safe about bringing their children back.

Shomrei Emunah’s day-care and preschool is giving back a percentage of prorated tuition to families, and teachers are continuing to be paid, said school director Heather Brown.

According to Shomrei Emunah’s website, shomrei.org, the annual tuition and fees for the school year range from $2,200 for a 2-year-old child attending two days a week to $10,185 for a 4-year-old attending five days a week.

The Montclair Community Pre-K offers a daily remote learning program for all of its families.

“For families who are not participating in the remote learning program, MCPK has either issued refunds or put future tuition payments on hold,” MCPK director Amy Dorr said.

In April, the school eliminated extended care fees for morning and after-care, since the school cannot provide those services remotely, Dorr said. For the June tuition, the school brought the price down for all families by 30 percent. Financial assistance is provided to an individual based on request and reduced income level due to the pandemic, she said.

MCPK has had a sliding scale in place for many years for tuition, based on a family’s financial situation.

The feedback from families has been positive, Dorr said. “Families have been grateful for our flexibility and availability to problem-solve with them. We have been able to reduce, refund, or put a hold on tuition payments for every family that has requested help for financial reasons or because they have chosen not to participate in remote learning,” she said.

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