Strict new state and local rules imposed this weekend on gatherings do not apply to preschools and child-care centers.


In fact, on Thursday, the state agencies in charge of regulating and subsidizing child care moved to allow enrollments as schools across the state shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.


But some Columbia child care centers and preschools are seeing dramatically declining enrollment, and may face financial losses that will put them out of business, as parents keep their children home out of fear.


A few have already closed temporarily.


Enrollment has declined by half at Nora Stewart Early Learning Center as parents who can stay home remove their children, said director Cheryl Howard.


"Parents have to work," Howard said.


Those are the ones for whom the center is remaining open, she said.


"They don’t have options," she said of working parents. "Our doors will remain open as long as we can."


Losing more children will result in the loss of income and could result in closure, she said.


"We’re a small business," Howard said. "It’s hard on all business. Right now we’re open. I can’t say we’ll be open in a month or a week. We are accepting children."


On Friday, Columbia ordered all bars and restaurants to close except for carry-out or delivery service and limited public gatherings to 10 or fewer people. Boone County followed Saturday morning with an identical order for areas outside Columbia city limits.


The rules exclude grocery stores, food banks, jails, cafeterias housed at medical providers and day care centers. Gov. Mike Parson announced similar orders Saturday statewide.


On Thursday, state Departments of Health and Senior Services and Social Services loosened regulations for child care centers. The changes allow licensed centers to accommodate school age children while schools are closed and exceed their licensed capacity by one-third.


It also establishes 45-day licenses for the temporary care of preschool and school-age children.


The changes also extend child care subsidy program benefits for 90 days.


"We recognize that child care is an essential component of fighting COVID-19," Randall Williams, health department director, said in a news release. "Health care and other emergency medical personnel must have appropriate arrangements for their children to ensure they can provide the health care and other essential services needed by our communities."


Officials with the child care centers said it won’t make a difference.


The closure of area schools hasn’t resulted in any additional children, Howard said. The center is licensed to accept school-age children.


"My biggest fear right now is our staff getting sick," she said. "We have to have a healthy staff."


They take precautions, sanitizing every surface with bleach at the end of every day, she said. Everyone signs in and out.


"Teachers are washing their hands every five or 10 minutes. They’re using hand sanitizers. Children are using hand sanitizers. We are taking all the precautions."


The situation is the same at Mary Lee Johnston Community Learning Center.


"We’re still open," said director Gay Litteken. "We have less than half our children here. We’re remaining open for parents who really don’t have a choice."


No parents of school-age children have stopped in or called since the announcement that schools would close, she said.


There’s also a worry about coronavirus, she said.


"It’s a concern," Litteken said. "As the numbers climb, the more concerned I am. It’s good the state of Missouri understands the importance of child care."


The center has had its own recent run-in with the state. The state is threatening to revoke its license over self-reported incidents involving child supervision. Nothing has changed with that, Litteken said.


The Child Development Center at First Baptist Church closed Wednesday, but director Misty Phillips said she hopes it can reopen soon.


"We remained open for as long as possible for those families who needed it, but made the decision to close because of the low attendance and safety," Phillips said. "We were concerned about the safety of students and staff so we were trying to make a decision on a daily basis. We feel we were responsible to the children, parents and staff in terms of staying open as long as possible and we were down to only 10 percent attendance on the last day we were open."


Country Side Nursery School is closed temporarily, said director Rebecca Scott.


"We go along with Columbia Public Schools," she said. "When they close, we close. We closed and we won’t be back until the 13th of April. I’m seeing lots of pictures from parents of things they’re doing with their children."


Closing was a responsible decision, Scott said.


"We all have to do what we can to keep this from getting worse," she said. "Even though children aren’t that affected by the virus, they can get it and give it to their family."


Parents have been understanding, Scott said. Since it’s a preschool rather than a daycare might be the difference, she said.


"Some of the parents had stopped bringing their children" before the closure, Scott said.


Parent Tara Arnett said this week she would place her children in child care until she could work from home, but that it was counterintuitive to move them from a crowded school to a crowded daycare.


The exemption on gatherings for child care centers was a question during a Facebook Live event by the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services.


"There are a lot of pieces to all of these decisions," said medical director Ashley Millham. "Closing or changing how a business is run has huge repercussions."


Because some parents can stay home with their children and others can’t makes such decisions difficult, she said. Children aren’t as vulnerable to the disease, but they can spread it, she said.


"Daycares especially, that is a tricky decision," Millham. "I’m not weighing in on whether daycares should stay open or close."


rmckinney@columbiatribune.com


573-815-1719


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