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Working parents and Richmond child care centers grapple with omicron variant
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Working parents and Richmond child care centers grapple with omicron variant

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As the omicron variant spikes COVID-19 cases around the Richmond region, working parents and local child care centers are forging ahead, unsure of the future.

“This just does not feel sustainable at this point,” said Andrea Leggett, mother of 4-year-old twins. She works part time in education, while her husband is a security guard. She spoke from her home on Friday, where she was out of work with her kids because her son had a wet cough and a runny nose and couldn’t attend child care.

“I’m already almost out of sick time because I’m staying home so often with my kids when they have symptoms,” Leggett said.

It’s a problem facing many Richmond-area working parents and child care centers with the latest wave of the coronavirus, which has led to record-breaking case numbers in Virginia. On Friday, the Virginia Department of Health reported more than 18,000 new cases in the state, higher than any other wave even at the height of the pandemic in terms of cases.

Add to the fact that children under 5 aren’t able to get vaccinated yet.

For now, Richmond-area child care centers are planning safety protocols similar to what they’ve been doing throughout the pandemic. They will continue to require masks for children over age 2 or 3 and to screen for illnesses. But many have questions on which guidance to follow if a child tests positive for COVID.

“We’re seeing a lot of confusion in the field right now with regards to CDC guidance. We’ve been able to get guidance for the general public, but not specifically for child care,” said Kim Hulcher, executive director of the Virginia Child Care Association, on Wednesday. “We’re seeing a lot of pushback from families who need [child] care. These parents have to work.”

In late December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance for people in the general public with COVID to isolate for five days, followed by five days of wearing a mask when around others.

J. David Young of the Friends Association for Children, which operates two child care centers in Church Hill and Jackson Ward, said their centers are sticking with the previous 10-day quarantine rule.

“It just doesn’t seem wise to do anything else,” he said.

But if a child starts to show symptoms of COVID, the responsibility is on the parent to get their child tested. And with the shortage of at-home COVID tests, that can be difficult to do.

“The availability of rapid antigen testing might be strained for some time,” Dr. Laurie Forlano, deputy director for the VDH, said on Tuesday. It could take two or three more weeks for the supply to be replenished.

Many child care centers are asking families to keep children at home if they have any symptoms of COVID and haven’t yet received a negative test.

Leggett said that’s part of the reason why she’s running out of sick days so quickly.

“It takes one to two days to get a COVID-19 test and results, and those [count as] sick days for me,” she said. “It goes quickly.”

Another pressing issue with local child care centers is staffing. Staffing continues to be a challenge for many centers due to historic low wages, hindering enrollment. Child care workers typically make $11 per hour, just above minimum wage. As of 2019, child care workers received an average annual salary in Virginia of $22,797, well below the federal poverty line, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.

KinderCare’s Allison Peressin said, “We’re working hard to meet the needs of the community. The one thing that holds us back is the ability to staff. If we had the staff, we could fill our centers.”

There are nine KinderCare locations in the Richmond area.

“We’re about 75% occupied,” she said, in terms of enrollment.

“We are currently doing a statewide survey of [early education] providers and we have heard that it is incredibly difficult to retain, attract and hire new staff right now,” said Jenna Conway, from the Virginia Department of Education’s early childhood care and education division, via email. The VDOE does not track employment or enrollment at private child care centers, but does track statewide services.

From their survey, two-thirds of directors reported that staffing was either moderately or very hard. For the directors who made new hires in July, 83% said the process was either moderately or very hard.

“These staffing challenges had real implications,” Conway added. “74% said they asked current staff to work more hours or take on additional duties. Over half (52%) said staffing challenges made them serve fewer children or turn families away. Over a third (36%) reduced the number of classrooms at their sites. 56% said they hired an applicant that was less experienced/or qualified than they would like.”

While Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin has promised that Virginia will remain “open for business,” working parents and child care centers scramble to adapt as COVID cases continue to rise in the Richmond area.

According to The Associated Press, hospitalizations of U.S. children under 5 with COVID soared in recent weeks to their highest level since the pandemic began, adding to parents’ worst fears and worries about keeping their children safe.

“We have to learn how to live with COVID. It’s not going away,” said the VCCA’s Hulcher. “We have to start looking at alternative solutions [for child care], such as quarantining in place with pods. ... We can’t keep opening and closing these classrooms based on one positive case. We need specific guidance on child care centers and how we can support our children and families as they go back to work.”

ccurran@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6151

Twitter: @collcurran

Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.

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