Indiana urges child care providers to stay open, but some are growing quiet amid coronavirus fears

On a typical day, Indianapolis child care center director Antoinette Williams rarely has a free minute. Her team is in charge of 25 little ones for 12 hours every weekday — and there are always infants who need to be changed and fed, toddlers to teach, and other children to watch before and after school.

But by Tuesday, attendance at Precious Moments Early Childhood Academy had dwindled to just eight, as families kept their children at home amid concerns over the new coronavirus. With her colleagues on site, Williams found herself with her first day off in a long time.

As education leaders last week contemplated whether to shutter schools, many worried about closing campuses because, in addition to educating students, schools provide essential child care that enables parents to go to work. On Monday, the state urged child care centers to remain open to serve families who need them.

As the world has radically shifted, however, some daycares are growing quiet. Parents who are concerned about sending their children to child care and potentially increasing their exposure to the virus may be turning instead to neighbors, friends, or older siblings to watch them. And as many businesses either close down or instruct their staff to work from home, some parents no longer expected at work are caring for their children themselves.

Williams said Precious Moments will close for the rest of the week because of low enrollment, illustrating the challenge of providing crucial child care while much of the economy faces an unprecedented shutdown. She hopes to reopen next week because she knows that some families — particularly those who need to continue working through the coronavirus pandemic, such as sanitation or health care workers — need child care.

“Every day, I feel like there’s so much more information that comes out, that changes daily,” she said. “We’re planning to be open next week, but that doesn’t mean anything.”

Meanwhile, the MLK Center in Indianapolis stepped in to offer child care as soon as Marion County schools closed Friday. The center has about 50 children in its regular after school program, and about a dozen children showed up during that first day of closure. But by Tuesday, many families had found other options and only one family left their four children at the center.

Still, that child care enabled the parents of those children to go to work and earn a day’s pay helping to clean their workplaces, which are closed as a result of the coronavirus, said Allison Luthe, the executive director of the MLK Center.

The Center has gotten questions from volunteers and families about why they stay open when schools — and so many other institutions — are closing.

“We have parents who have to work,” said Luthe, who noted that the building is deep cleaned every night. In the long term, she worries about how all the families they serve will deal with the economic consequences of the outbreak. “Even though that family went to work today, one day’s pay is not going to keep you from being evicted.”

Given the gravity of the situation many families face, Mary Bielata considers herself lucky: Her job in medical billing and coding is based at home, so when her 8-year-old daughter’s school in Perry Township closed, she didn’t need to find child care. Still, she is juggling work responsibilities with caring for her daughter.

Bielata is currently working overtime to prepare for an anticipated influx of patients with the coronavirus. “It’s not easy,” she said, “but I’m having a hard time complaining because I do have a job that I work from home anyway, so I’m more able to be flexible with my time.”