Emergency childcare continued through the sharpest shutdown period of the coronavirus pandemic, but offerings have expanded as the city continues with reopening.
Per city guidelines, educational and childcare institutions are to have visual signage promoting safety measures throughout the facility. Frequently cleaning with disinfectant is required, and doors and windows should open to increase ventilation when possible. Parents and employees are to wear facial coverings at all times, but children will not have to wear them in the classroom, though they will be screened before entering.
The Hyde Park Neighborhood Club, 5480 S. Kenwood Ave., immediately applied for an emergency license from the Illinois Department of Children and Families and had been caring for five children of emergency health care workers since March.
The now-standard practices of frequent hand-washing and six feet of social distancing quickly became de rigueur, Executive Director Angela Habr-Paranjape said, as did moving programming outside whenever possible, closing communal spaces, temperature checks, the introduction of face masks, removing hard-to-clean toys and frequent sanitizing.
"It's really just keeping updated on the most-recent guidelines, because they do change quite frequently," she said. "We want to be as conservative and safe as possible. Because we expect a higher volume, that does create logistical considerations."
As it stands, only the HPNC's 10-week summer camp is planned for the months ahead. It will serve 30 children — 50% of typical capacity. In-person athletic and early childhood programs are cancelled, though the organization is producing free-of-charge virtual Play-N-Learn content for parents.
Each classroom group is being kept separate from the others, and siblings will be cared for together to reduce the mix of households. Curbside drop-offs and pickups are encouraged in Phase 3, and the HPNC asks parents to take their children's temperature on their own, as personal protective equipment guidelines for staff to do this are cumbersome.
The HPNC has suffered financially from the pandemic, as many programs in the spring had to be cancelled and private contributions ebbed. The nonprofit received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which Habr-Paranjape called critical to survival, though it is unclear whether the debt will be forgiven. But the emergent summer camp, due to begin on June 22, gives hope of a path forward.
"Again, it's at much lower capacity, so that cuts into our bottom line. There is very little margin in a nonprofit," she said. "We really rely on fundraising, program fees and people who have state-subsidized childcare. We do want to remain accessible to families, but the uncertainty and the cancellation of around 75% of our programs is still something we have to problem-solve around."
She said there is "no telling" whether staffing cuts will be necessary in the future.
At any rate, the HPNC is making further plans to be an "online learning hub" in the fall: should remote learning in schools have to continue in whatever capacity, the plan is for children to do their work online supervised 10 to a room, with supplemental activities and meals provided.
A grant from the University of Chicago Office of Civic Engagement allowed the HPNC to buy Chromebook computers for student use and upgrade the building's WiFi in preparation.
Robin Hawkins, a state-licensed home daycare provider in North Kenwood since 2007, did not have to apply for an emergency license, though there were limits placed on her capacity during the shutdown. "I just could not take any more than six kids, so I only had three during the entire time," she said.
Even while cases and deaths were exponentially increasing, Hawkins kept her head.
"I had had the kids in my care anyway. The environment did not change. The kids were not sick; I was not sick," she said. "I kept going, just making sure that I sanitized. I disinfected everything. I washed everything. I washed my hands constantly. I got tested; I've been tested, even though I didn't have any symptoms, just for peace of mind.
"But nothing really changed, except for the fact that a lot of my parents left," she continued. "They got scared. They got a little bit concerned, and I get it. But there were a couple that had to go into work, so I didn't want to abandon them, and I have a girl who works for me — I didn't want to abandon her, either. She needed her money."
Hawkins kept face masks, hand sanitizer and gloves at the front door; the only thing the children, aged one or two, noticed was different, was that she was wearing a mask. Like the HPNC, Hawkins lost 75% of her income in the shutdown, but PPP, other loans and reduced personal spending have helped buffer the initial economic shock.
"I kept going," she said. "I cleaned. I cleaned just the same way that I was cleaning before. I knew that that virus was not in here, so I was OK with it."
Now that the city has entered Phase 3, Hawkins is trying to determine a protocol to further screen children before she begins accepting new clients, from temperature checks to cleaning, facility and social distancing protocols. She has been meeting with other child care providers in Hyde Park-Kenwood and HPNC Development Director Sarah Diwan to draft plans. Parents are not allowed in the house. Children will not be accepted if they show symptoms, and they have to wear face masks.
"We're trying to come up with some standards collectively," Hawkins explained, "as a network of child care providers that we can live by."