Published May 20th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
When it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, each resulting economic crisis spreads to another much like the coronavirus.
Outbreaks in meat processing plants cripple farmers. Self-quarantined shoppers hobble retailers.
The latest ripple is now flowing through families in the Kansas City-area workforce. As the area struggles to reopen the economy, job call-backs are exacerbating a child care crunch. Making matters even worse is that social-distancing requirements are limiting camp slots for the summer.
All families grapple with keeping the kids occupied during the summer months. As with health care, though, the tremors prompted by the pandemic have exposed preexisting cracks in a system that tends to be most challenging for lower-income families.
“All this has brought into sharp focus what might not have been readily apparent,” said Brent Schondelmeyer of the Local Investment Commission (LINC). “Summer was always complicated for parents.”
Based in Kansas City, Missouri, LINC’s services include before- and after-school care for students in several area elementary schools.
Special circumstances can make summer camp decisions especially difficult for people like Cheryl Moormann, a Leawood, Kansas, mom and kidney transplant recipient. She sought help from curiousKC, Kansas City PBS’ reader-driven initiative, in her evaluation of sending her middle-school daughter to performing arts camps.
Guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) illustrates how this will be a camp season like no other.
The CDC has developed a “decision tree” to help administrators evaluate their situation.
At a bare minimum, according to the CDC, camps that open must be able to comply with local and state COVID-19 directives, protect high-risk campers and staff, and screen children and employees for symptoms or past exposure.
An environmental consulting firm hired by the American Camp Association also has an 82-page field guide to help with adherence to the CDC guidelines.
On the local and regional front, the Heart of America Council of the Boy Scouts of America has abbreviated its camp schedule.
Area parks and recreation departments, including those in Johnson County and Kansas City, Missouri, are also modifying their summer programming.
Johnson County’s phased opening, in accordance with the governor’s executive orders, includes restrictions of no more than 10 people per “active use zone.”
Kansas City Parks & Recreation has canceled off-site field trips and has placed swim trips on hold until further guidance. Attendance at each community center is going to be limited to no more than 15 kids.
Parks spokeswoman Leslie Alford said the department is looking for ways to open more slots. The department is also running a day camp to help working parents.
Educators in the U.S. have long worried about the “summer slide,” when students regress during the long break from classes. Given the challenges of online learning, some child advocates are arguing that the summer slide actually began in March when in-person classes ceased.
Turn the Page KC is a nonprofit dedicated to reading proficiency for some of the city’s youngest students, and it has sounded the alarm about COVID-19’s magnification of the summer child care crisis and the impact it can have on kids’ literacy.
The “devastating choice” many parents face in the coming weeks, Turn the Page KC said in a recent report, will be to “risk losing your job because you do not want to leave your kids home alone, or return to work without a child care solution.”
Added the report, “If we do not act quickly, children will remain home unsupervised, and they will suffer a significant learning loss.”
The danger, too, is that desperate parents might have to resort to less than ideal situations for even minimal supervision. The environment could encourage unemployed workers, who have no background or expertise in child care, to offer in-home services without health and safety reviews by authorities.
The nonprofit has several resources on its website to help parents find reading opportunities for their children this summer.
Looking at lost slots through LINC and other tried-and-true programs, such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City, Turn the Page KC said no clear options exist for approximately 10,000 elementary-aged students in the city.
At the Boys & Girls Club, COVID-19 safety guidelines mean it is operating at about a third of its typical summer capacity, offering just 400 in-person slots at its sites around the metropolitan area.
That’s a bitter pill for the organization, but the health and well-being of the kids and staff is paramount, said CEO Dred Scott.
The organization is prioritizing slots for its youngest participants, ages 5 through 12. There will be online options for teens, and perhaps the return of in-person weekend hangouts, if that’s possible.
Boys & Girls Club programming provides social, emotional and educational support to low-income students. As a longtime educator, Scott is well aware that hardships can fall disproportionately on families of little means.
“We definitely see that equity gap, and it’s unfortunate that it takes a pandemic for the larger community to see and recognize that that gap exists,” he said. “It has been around forever. So, I hope now that it has gotten a bit of attention, we can do something about it.”
Turn the Page KC issued several recommendations in its call to action for the local community, including suggesting help from local governments, school districts and philanthropists to open as many camp slots as possible.
The nonprofit has also called upon the business community to take parental status into account when calling back workers. Parents with children at home should be permitted, and encouraged, to continue working from home.
The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, along with partners, is also encouraging employers to listen to the needs of their employees in bringing them back to the office through its Safe Return KC Guide.
The delicate balance, said Scott Hall, the chamber’s senior vice president for civic and community initiatives, is to not overstep into potential discrimination issues between parents and those people without children.
Lack of affordable child care is certainly a concern for the chamber, Hall said. That falls within the realm of having strong early childhood education to create an effective local workforce.
Hall also said the current discussion also dovetails with the chamber’s longtime emphasis on community health.
“It used to be that we would have to articulate how community health impacted business,” he said. “I don’t think there is any reasonable person who doesn’t understand the way those two things are linked now.”
For Moormann, the curiousKC participant, her health concerns stem from her at-risk status as an organ recipient. Anti-rejection medication suppresses her immune system.
Moormann wants to get her 13-year-old daughter the peer interaction she covets after being holed up at home since March. The dance and acting places her daughter typically attends are being extra safe and employing all the precautions suggested by health authorities.
But that’s the rub, Moormann said. How much fun will it be acting with a mask on all day?
Her daughter has been so sweet, Moormann said. She has offered to forgo her camps, if that means she can still cozy up to her mom before bedtime.
“She has seen me very ill,” Moormann said. “She doesn’t want me to be sick like that again.”
Moormann’s husband has already quit his job because they were uncomfortable with the safety environment at his workplace.
With June 1 deadlines looming for her daughter, Moormann remains conflicted.
Just to be on the safe side, Moormann said the family might opt out of those group activities this summer.
Maybe, she said, this would be an opportunity for her daughter to take up horseback riding.
The alarm bells about child safety in the summer follow warnings at the outset of the pandemic lockdowns in March.
At that time, the National Association for the Education of Young Children survey found that nearly half of the 6,000 respondents would not survive a closure of more than two weeks without some sort of public support.
Washington did send relief in late March, earmarking $3.5 billion for the industry in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act.
Sent as state block grants, the money aimed to keep centers afloat in the face of decreased enrollment due to the coronavirus. The funding was also meant to ensure essential employees had the child care assistance they needed.
The latest federal stimulus bill, passed Friday by the House, includes $7 billion more in block grants. Industry advocates argued the real need is closer to $50 billion, citing research by the National Women’s Law Center.
Back in March, the future looked touch and go for Sheri Lee, who owns Lee’s Kinder Academy in the Northland.
Lee has soldiered on with the help of the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which awarded loans through the Small Business Administration to keep employees on the payroll. That should get her through another month, and then… who knows?
Also helping Lee stay afloat were payments from seven families who had their kids at home during self quarantine but were keeping their spot so they could return when the time came. Last week, Lee was preparing to welcome back kids from those families.
Lee thinks she may see a bump in enrollment in July, after parents who have held out going back to work can do so no longer.
Until then, for her and other operators, Lee said, “It is a game of who is going to hold on the longest.”
At The Family Conservancy, supporting child care providers is part of its mission. Headquartered in Kansas City, Kansas, the organization has a nine-county, bistate service area.
One provider told CEO Paula Neth that she was not taking a salary in order to keep her staff employed and the doors open. The provider worried that if she closed her doors, she would never be able to reopen.
With the start of the stay-at-home orders, and knowing that some essential workers would have to remain on the job, the conservancy and the Mid-America Regional Council have initiated a survey evaluating the supply and demand of child care in the region.
The differing rules and regulations across the state line are making it harder for providers and potential funders to navigate the pandemic, Neth said.
According to providers in the conservancy’s area, Neth said, there are more than 71,000 slots available to safely and effectively serve kids.
With the pandemic, Neth said, it’s hard to know what the child care situation looks like from either the supply side or demand side of the equation. Parents might want to keep their kids home to avoid group settings, and providers might have to limit capacity to meet safety guidelines.
One thing Neth does know is that the inadequacy of the nation’s child care system is another crack exposed by COVID-19.
“Part of this dilemma is that for too long we haven’t really valued the child care system as an important part of our infrastructure,” she said, “and it has really taken something like a pandemic to say, ‘Oh, wait a minute. My employees can’t come back to work if they don’t have access to child care.’ ”
Mike Sherry is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 816.398.4205.