TLC meets challenges of providing child care during COVID crisis
By Mary Pieper, Special to the Charles City Press
Although some Charles City area parents are home with their kids during the COVID-19 pandemic, others still need child care because they are still working.
Fortunately for them, TLC: The Learning Center has been able to stay open.
Even with all the difficulties of operating a child care center in the midst of a pandemic, the dedication of the staff has enabled them “to continue to provide the loving care they (the children) get at TLC,” said director Pam Ost.
Despite wearing face masks, which makes it more difficult for the little ones to hear their voices, staff members have learned to communicate through their hand gestures and their eyes, according to Ost.
Since the pandemic began in March, TLC has experienced a dramatic drop in attendance as parents who were furloughed or laid off have temporarily withdrawn their children.
TLC received Paycheck Protection Program funds so none of their employees had to be laid off, Ost said.
However, running the TLC to meet the needs of parents who are still working has been challenging due to the ever-changing COVID-19 protocols, she said.
Those protocols come from the Department of Human Services, the Floyd County Department of Public Health, the CDC and Child Care Resources and Referrals.
The agencies have long lists of rules on hand washing, disinfecting surfaces and toys, and checking the temperatures of staff and children.
Parents are no longer allowed in the building. Instead, they drop their children off in the alcove.
TLC also is adhering to social distancing procedures. Only 10 people can be in a room at a time and there’s lots of blue tape on the floors to show how far everyone needs to stay apart, according to Ost.
She said the children have always stayed with other kids their own age inside the building, but now they don’t mingle on the playground either as only one age group is allowed there at a time.
All the plush toys have been removed from the center. The staff now gives the children specific items that can be easily sanitized after use.
The children are listening to what staff members have to say about not hugging their friends and washing their hands often and thoroughly, Ost said.
“They are doing as well as they can to abide by what we are trying to tell them,” she said.
Some of the parents, particularly those who have school-aged children, have given their kids masks to wear to day care. Ost said the children have been faithful in using the face coverings.
All these precautions seem to be working, she said.
“We have experienced no illness inside the center as far as staff,” she said.
Some children have gotten sick, but not with COVID-19, according to Ost.
She said even with decreased attendance at TLC, there’s still not much space to spare because of the need to practice social distancing.
Ost said TLC and the Charles City School District are continuing to pursue an agreement that would allow the day care center to move into the former middle school building at 500 N. Grand Ave.
School officials and TLC leadership began discussing the possibility long before the pandemic due to the day care center needing more space to expand.
Even before the pandemic, “Iowa was experiencing a child care crisis” due to a lack of available slots, Ost said.
Between 2014 and 2019, the number of Floyd County child care providers decreased by 36 percent, she said.
More than 930 child care sites have closed statewide due to the pandemic, which means Iowa has lost half of its already limited day care slots due to COVID-19, according to Ost.
The building at 404 N. Jackson St. that TLC is currently leasing is 4,777 square feet. Moving into the newer portion of the North Grand building, which was built in the 1970s, would double the available space, she said.
Before COVID-19, TLC had room for 93 children. The former middle school has space for 125-145 kids.
Levi Architecture of Cedar Falls is working on design plans for turning a portion of the North Grand building into a day care. Ost said a fundraising group is being organized, but the amount of money needed for the project remains unknown as of yet.
The school district and TLC have shown they can work together.
After the school district switched to only online learning in March due to the pandemic, a free day care program for the children of essential workers such as those employed by the hospital or local grocery stores was launched.
Washington Elementary was the primary site, while TLC served as the secondary site.
The program was initially operated by school volunteers, but TLC took it over in mid-April and ran it for the last six weeks of the school year, Ost said.
When school starts in the fall, TLC will once again participate in the “wrap-around” program for children in the half-day preschool program at Washington Elementary.
In this program, which started before the pandemic, the little ones could go to TLC before or after preschool hours – or both – to better accommodate their parents’ work schedules.
Ost said TLC also provides care for these children on snow days and school vacation days.
She said the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted “the need for improvement of the day care industry at the national, state and local level.”
Fortunately, the Charles City School District and TLC’s other community partners realize the need for everyone to work together to provide for the needs of children “from birth to graduation,” she said.