Michigan’s reopening economy needs child care. This educator’s struggle shows that rebooting centers won’t be easy.

A student at the newly reopened Blessed Beginnings Learning Center. Masks aren’t recommended by the state for children at play outdoors. (Courtesy LaShawn Bridges)

LaShawn Bridges had spent months worrying about reopening her child care center in Detroit. But what happened on Monday was more like opening an entirely new center.

Before the pandemic, students would have walked inside with their parents. Now Bridges met them outside with a handheld thermometer to screen them for fever, and parents weren’t allowed in the building. As soon as students walked inside, they were instructed to wash their hands. Everyone, including the kids, wore masks.

“It’s kind of awkward at first,” Lindsay Gray, a preschool teacher at Blessed Beginnings, Bridges’ center, said. “It’s like for that first second, when they hit that corner with the mask on, you don’t know who they are. Whereas before they’d just run in and go straight to whatever and hug you, now it’s different. They feel that it’s different.”

Soon enough, though, things began to feel somewhat normal. The students spent most of the day playing and learning outside, so teachers didn’t have to spend much time sanitizing toys.

“The kids are happy to be back with one another,” Bridges said.

That didn’t mean she could stop worrying. The coronavirus pandemic has already pushed her business — which she has owned and operated since 1999, starting out in her basement — into financial difficulties that would only get worse if children or staff were infected, or if not enough students showed up. Then there was the risk that one of her older teachers or children could become seriously ill.

“I have not slept a full night since Saturday night, just with the anxiety of wanting to keep the families and the children safe,” she said on Wednesday.

Bridges met children outside at the beginning of the day to take their temperature. (Courtesy LaShawn Bridges)

Bridges’ center is an example of the challenges child care providers across the state face as they try to reopen in the midst of a pandemic. Nearly 1,000 providers in southeast Michigan have already reopened, about one-third of the total.

What happens at Blessed Beginnings and other child care centers across the state will help determine whether the state can rebound financially. If the reopenings don’t go well and parents — especially essential workers — don’t have a place to send their children when they return to work, the economic recovery will be jeopardized.

That puts a heavy burden on providers like Bridges, who are now responsible for the health of their teachers and students. Yet as government aid for child care centers runs out or falls short, many providers are at risk of closing for good.

In Michigan, child care providers typically own and run their centers themselves, often on razor thin margins. Unlike K-12 schools and universities, which rely on state funding, child care centers depend on tuition payments that can vary week to week.

Nonetheless, providers of early education are among the first educators in the state to welcome children back for pandemic-era instruction.

“There’s all kinds of conversations happening right now about whether school is going to reopen in the fall,” said Erica Willard, director of the Michigan Association for the Education of Young Children. “Well, child care has already been facing this for a few months now. You say this field is essential, but there’s not the financial backing or the recognition of the critical work that this field is doing.”

If Bridges’ experience is any guide, reopening won’t be easy. Even extensive preparations can’t guarantee that children will show up.

“Me getting paid will depend on the children who are returning,” Bridges said late in June. “I don’t feel the financial strain right now, but it’s coming.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics has suggested that child care centers should reopen, saying children are less likely to become infected and spread the coronavirus. But many parents remain worried for their children’s health — and for their own if their children brought the virus home.

In her community on the east side of Detroit, Bridges is viewed as especially skilled and reliable. She’s one of a small number of providers who have earned a five-star quality rating from the state, the highest possible. After running a small program out of her home for 20 years, she won a $75,000 grant from the city last year to expand to a new building that would accommodate 60 children.

Most of her students come from low-income families, and their tuition is partially subsidized by the state. As part of Michigan’s coronavirus relief efforts, the payments kept coming this spring even after the center shut down. That money, plus a federal payroll loan, had allowed Bridges to keep paying her staff through the early months of the crisis.

Even after state subsidies ran out, Bridges brought back her six staff members to sanitize the center and develop a new pandemic-era curriculum, which would mix standard lessons on the solar system with discussions of germs and handwashing practice.

Bridges began working to win parents’ trust months ago, aiming for a June reopening. On a video conference call with parents in early June, she laid out a total overhaul of Blessed Beginnings’ daily routine. The 14-page reopening plan she’d submitted to the state amounted to a rethinking of her entire program, from morning drop-off to lesson topics to the policy on sick students. 

Bridges had no choice but to be extremely careful. She knew that a COVID-19 outbreak at Blessed Beginnings would force her to close for at least two weeks and scare parents away, a catastrophic scenario that would raise questions about whether the center could ever reopen.

“It might be days that you guys will be mad at me, because I am going to stick to the sick policy to a T,” she told the 25 parents on the call.

Her efforts seemed to be paying off. Twenty parents signed on to bring their children back when the center reopened — fewer than the 40 she was allowed under COVID-19 rules, but a start. 

Jasmine Harris, whose 4-year-old son has been a student at the center for two years, and who is an early childhood educator herself, said she intended to bring him back to child care even though the prospect made her nervous.

“As long as every parent is on board, it can be really effective,” she said, adding that Bridges was known for keeping her center neat and sanitary even before the pandemic.

Bridges told parents on the call that she already had to delay reopening by a week or two. She had leased a ZONO machine — a refrigerator-like device capable of disinfecting multiple shelves of toys at a time — so her staff wouldn’t have to spend all their time cleaning toys, but its delivery was delayed. 

A few weeks later, the machine arrived, but now Bridges had another problem: Parents weren’t getting tested for the coronavirus as she’d requested.

With days to go before the center was supposed to open, one parent said she’d rather keep her child at home than undergo an invasive nasal swab. Others seemed to be dragging their feet.

Bridges knew she couldn’t afford to wait. Every day the center stayed closed pushed her closer to a financial precipice. But as opening day neared, she chose public health over her own wallet. She would give families another week to get tested — and forgo a week of tuition.

As the reopening date approached, Bridges called every parent on her roster, hoping to reassure them and bring in more students. Many of the calls were encouraging; Bridges figured that about 20 children would show up on the first day. But it was also clear that the center faced an uphill climb to recruit 40 children, the maximum number it can take during the pandemic.

Some parents told Bridges they weren’t convinced it was safe. One parent, an essential worker, said she wouldn’t bring her child back out of concern that her germs would be passed to other children at the center. Still others said they would wait until September, when they’d likely be able to see how reopening was going for K-12 schools.

LaShawn Bridges washes her hands at a newly installed sink at her child care center in Detroit. (Courtesy LaShawn Bridges)

A few days before the center was set to reopen, Bridges gathered her staff and asked them to share “roses, thorns, and rosebuds” — good things, bad things, and areas for growth.

“There were a lot more thorns than roses,” Gray recalled. She and others felt that the center was as well prepared as it could be, but there was no way to guarantee that the virus wouldn’t slip through the cracks. Older teachers expressed concerns about their health, while others wondered aloud if families would take the necessary steps to avoid bringing the virus with them into the classroom.

“We can do everything we can to be safe and to keep ourselves healthy, but we are putting ourselves at risk by opening ourselves up to these kids and to their families,” Gray added.

Finally, on Monday, Blessed Beginnings reopened. Just eleven students showed up. By Wednesday, 15 students showed up, giving Bridges hope that her numbers would continue to grow. 

At the same time, though, the center had already sent children home for displaying symptoms of illness. One was sniffling, another seemed to be suffering from seasonal allergies, but Bridges couldn’t take a chance.

By Thursday afternoon, Bridges was beginning to feel that she and her students would get used to this strange new normal. It helped that 14 kids had shown up that day, and that she’d talked on the phone with a group of Detroit-based providers about the challenges of reopening.

“We got to vent, so that was helpful,” she said. “We talked about getting our legislators involved, wanting a seat at the table when they’re making up these policies. Hopefully a conversation can be had with the state about cutting our subsidies, and how it’s putting our businesses in jeopardy.”

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